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How to fix Syracuse football in the long-term, part 3: What will work

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Here come the largely obvious solutions...

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

On the precipice of what could very well be a 1-10 season, Syracuse Orange football fans are wondering what happens next. To help deal with the existential crisis and the reality that SU football still has more work to do, we’ve embarked on this three-part series discussing how to establish a better foundation for long-term success.

If you missed how this all started, catch yourself up below first:

All caught up? Great. Now let’s move on to the good stuff.

What Will Work

I know that in yesterday’s post, I said there were no guarantees in life and that remains true. However, there is one guarantee here that WILL WORK toward getting Syracuse football back into a stable place long-term. That thing is obvious, of course.

It’s winning. Duh.

But if it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. Winning solves everything. But this piece is more about how the Orange assure themselves of as many wins as possible in the coming years, so that those wins are easier to come by over time. Now that we know this “secret” to fixing SU football, how do we make it happen?

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Colgate at Syracuse Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Smart Scheduling

Again, Sean and I have hammered this point home so much over the last 14 years, that few readers need to be sold on the idea. Syracuse needs to emulate other programs that have dug themselves out of ditches before, by scheduling as many wins as possible. The more wins you get, the more resources at your disposal. And the more resources at your disposal, the better recruits you’re probably going to bring in the door.

Over the years, I’ve come up with an adage that’s typically true... except in those instances like 2018 and 2020, somehow, when it’s very much not: Syracuse football will win four games and lose four games every season. The year’s defined by what you do in the middle.

So if we’re believing that’s the case most years (and it has been for nine of the last 12), then you construct your schedule accordingly. In a typical year, here’s what a schedule looks like at current —

  • Likely Losses: Clemson, Florida State, Pitt because reasons, Louisville
  • Toss-Ups: Boston College, NC State, Wake Forest, Coastal TBD
  • Likely Wins: Schedule four teams you can beat, clearly

Those teams can potentially switch categorizations over time, but realistically, you shouldn’t really bank on winning more than two or three games from that toss-up group going into any season. So you’re starting off every season staring down 2-6 or 3-5, relying largely on the non-conference schedule to get you the rest of the way to a bowl game.

Of those four non-conference games, we have control over three of them every year and four others, due to the Notre Dame scheduling arrangement. Syracuse can fill the other spots with an FCS team every year (one win), a Group of Five home game (should be a win), another Group of Five school home or road (again, just make it a win) and a Power Five program.

When that P5 is Notre Dame, move Pitt or Louisville down to the toss-up group. When it’s not, schedule a team that Syracuse can beat. We’ve listed these names before, but most years lately, Rutgers, Colorado, Kansas, Oregon State, Vanderbilt, Purdue and a handful of others are likely to be similarly talented to SU at best.

There are other P5 schools littering their entire schedules with these sorts of winnable games right now, setting themselves up for wins through 2035. Syracuse is not one of them, and that’s the other piece of the “schedule smart” puzzle we’ve yet to really catch onto: Getting out ahead of things.

As recently as a few years ago, SU was announcing games for the forthcoming season less than 12 months out. Things have shifted somewhat — 2021, 2022 and 2026 are fully booked already — but schedules from 2027 and beyond are pretty barren. The sooner we lock up likely wins there, the sooner we can move on to other tasks.

Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Keep Up the Tempo

No, tempo is not the differentiator it once was, but Syracuse also isn’t really moving the ball very quickly and it’s exposing what was never supposed to be a very complicated playbook. Speed doesn’t have to be the only advantage the Orange have. But keeping that as an identity of the program seems like a natural and easy fit for a team that plays indoors.

This doesn’t even have to apply to just Dino Babers’s tenure, either. Whether he’s here in a few years or not, any subsequent coach Syracuse hires on should have experience running an up-tempo offense. The style is not only more attractive to fans, but it’s more attractive to recruits too, once you show you can succeed consistently by playing fast.

It wasn’t that long ago that receivers were setting annual records at Syracuse. Yet, the Ryan Nassib’s the most recent Orange skill player to get drafted (back in 2013). Delone Carter was the last running back picked, back in 2011. Mike Williams was the most recent receiver, in 2010.

So clearly, despite two coaches with offense as part of their coaching history and identities in the last decade, Syracuse has work to do here. But I really do feel that leaning into offensive firepower will work. That doesn’t have to mean we’re always a spread team, or every game’s a track meet, either. We’ve done a decent job recruiting defensive talent lately and SU should continue to lean into that.

Rather, this is just an ask that we develop some sort of character as a program. In the northeast, tempo can stand out. Playing indoors can stand out. And whether it’s Dino Babers, Sean Lewis, Eric Dungey (I know, half the fan base needs to lie down now) or someone else on the sidelines, leaning into speed is the right way to go.

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Build Connections

This is an extension of the football alumni engagement bit from the previous article, but it’s worth expanding upon.

In my opinion, SU has a bit of an disconnect with alums as a school right now and it’s also harder to engage younger alums with sports than it used to be. Coupled with the fact that not a lot of Orange alums stay local, and you can see why attendance has been a consistent issue over the last two decades.

Rather than make this an attendance rant, though, let’s just talk about the program building consistent connections and inroads with the community, potential fans, alums and possible donors. These individuals are the lifeblood of any athletic program and engaging them to-date has certainly helped John Wildhack get big things done. But there’s always more work to be done. And the goal should be making this program’s fans feel ownership of the on-field product, whether they’re able to attend games in the Dome or not.

You see some of this with men’s basketball players and fans. And maybe part of that comes from the common bond of watching or playing for the same coach over the course of more than 40 years. Jim Boeheim is a common thread. But the fact that it’s Syracuse should be too.

We have our football practice facility and the big donation of $25 million earlier this year. That’s a starting point, however. Not an ending. Having those things just catches us up to where everyone else is. The goal is that you want more money for practice facility expansions, better weight rooms, better player lounges and film rooms, and all. That comes from winning, and first, from making everyone feel part of the process.

Look at a school like Boise State, that involved the community in building the university and football program into something noteworthy on a national level. That took years and millions of dollars of buy-in. You don’t just make that money and support appear out of nowhere, though.

For Syracuse football to succeed, we need a “Melo Center”-type draw, and similarly involved alumni there. We need a collective rallying point. We need a community that spans well beyond the borders of campus, engaging alums and fans and all ages to want to help (financially, emotionally) build something together.

Wins make that easier, of course. But wins are also easier if you have that infrastructure in place already. It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum, sure. Yet just trying to make it happen has no downside. Worst-case, fans are more interested in getting on board and just haven’t yet.

***

I’ve noted several times above, but I think these three items are so crucial to the “WILL WORK” portion of things because they feed so much of the rest. Smarter scheduling allows you to dictate more of your identity as a program, and doing that allows you to reflect more positively to fans and alumni. All three help fuel resources getting dedicated toward football, and the more of those we have, the more we’re acquiring and retaining talented coaches and players.

Do that for long enough, and have the structure in place to make it happen with consistency, and we don’t have to have another one of these chats in five years.