As you learned on Monday, SB Nation is spending this week looking at the best teams that didn’t win a title across various sports. For the Syracuse Orange, we’re obviously able to come up with several across numerous sports.
Kevin already focused on the 1988-89 men’s basketball team. Today, we’ll stay in the same general timeframe and look at the 1987 football team.
This group knows that the Orangemen went an impressive 11-0 during the ‘87 regular season, earning a trip to the Sugar Bowl. After a season in which he accounted for over 2,500 yards of offense and 27 scores, Don McPherson won the Heisman Trophy too, so don’t bother looking that up.
SU’s reward for the unbeaten season (its first since 1959) was a trip to the Sugar Bowl, to face the SEC’s Auburn Tigers. Auburn was heavily favored, amassing a record of 9-1-1 while winning a conference title. Tigers defensive back Greg Staples said before the game that Syracuse would’ve lost at least three games in the SEC.
Still, since they were indeed undefeated, the game was a bit of a consolation prize for the Orangemen. Fellow unbeatens Miami and Oklahoma got to face off in the Orange Bowl that January to decide the national championship. Admittedly, both teams had played tougher slates to that point and probably had more talent on their respective rosters. And you could probably make the case for Florida State as the nation’s best team that year too, with a one-point loss to the rival Hurricanes being their lone defeat.
But Syracuse was still a major name in college football, even if they were removed from the heights of the 1950s and 60s by two decades. And playing a list of the country’s top Eastern independents (Virginia Tech, Penn State, Pitt, Navy, West Virginia, Boston College) still earned you a certain amount of acclaim.
Looking back, we focus on “Pat Tye” and the 16-16 draw down in New Orleans. However, it’s the system that was in place back then that really took Syracuse out of the running for a national title. At the time, there wasn’t even a mechanism to match the top two teams at the end of the season, nevermind the top four as we have now.
A playoff structure applied to 1987 would have likely put Syracuse as a third or fourth seed in a field with Oklahoma, Miami and Florida State. Would the Orangemen have won two games against that group? Maybe not. But many of us — whether we were there at the time or not — would’ve liked to see them at least get the chance, instead of the 11-0-1 non-championship season (or championship season, if you consult one t-shirt) we wound up with instead.
Because SU has so few football teams that have contended for titles in its history, this 1987 squad still gets its due among this fan base. But would a second legitimate championship (tying us with the likes of Auburn, Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee and more) change the way the wider sports world thinks about Syracuse football?
Dick MacPherson still had the Orangemen firing on all cylinders for most of his final years as coach, and Paul Pasqualoni was at the helm for very strong squads throughout the 1990s before the bottom fell out in the early 2000s. That was without a championship attached. It’s potentially worth wondering what could’ve been different, though, with that sort of prestige (real or imaged) to sell to recruits.
Instead, we get the consolation prize here: Syracuse’s best football team not to win it all... even if College Football Reference says that team is actually the 1996 team that went 9-3 (way to go, Coach P).