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Which years could an expanded playoff have benefited Syracuse football?

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Playing out some hypotheticals that couldn’t have happened, just because.

NCAA Football: Camping World Bowl-West Virginia vs Syracuse Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As is the case every offseason, this year brings calls to expand the College Football Playoff beyond the four teams it usually invites. Except this time, it at least seems like the powers-that-be are discussing the idea with an idea of implementing a change sooner rather than later.

Why the urgency? Well, TV money probably plays an even bigger factor now after these schools lost millions due to the pandemic. And since money is the primary reason any change happens in college sports, here we are.

While we’ll fully admit the number of times where the Syracuse Orange could contend for a spot in an eight-, 12- or even 16-team playoff event is probably minimal, it’s not impossible. And that wasn’t even always the case. So as an offseason exercise, it seemed entertaining to go back to 1987 to see how many times ‘Cuse could’ve been involved in these expanded playoff fields (and who they might have faced).

Eight Teams

For the eight-team event, we’ll assume the only squads guaranteed invites are the Power Five champs and three at-large squads. Taking last year’s final CFP rankings into account as our standard for inclusion, here’s what it would’ve looked like, while making the executive decision that the top-rated undefeated Group of Five team makes this field.

1. Alabama (11-0) vs. 25. Oregon (4-2)

2. Clemson (10-1) vs. 8. Cincinnati (9-0)

3. Ohio State (6-0) vs. 6. Oklahoma (8-2)

4. Notre Dame (10-1) vs. 5. Texas A&M (8-1)

Which years would Syracuse have made it?

1998

Yes, Donovan McNabb does get a title shot here despite not finishing among the top eight. But with six power conferences at the time (including the Big East), the Orangemen snag an auto-bid.

1. Tennessee (12-0) vs. 18. Syracuse (8-3)

2. Florida State (11-1) vs. 10. Tulane (11-0)

3. Kansas State (11-1) vs. 6. Texas A&M (11-2)

4. Ohio State (11-1) vs. 5. UCLA (10-1)

Not buying SU getting past this Vols team at all. But maybe the Green Wave goes on a run led by Shaun King and we all have a team to root for anyway past the first weekend?

1997

Same story here, as SU sneaks in at the end (with a better team, potentially, than they had in ‘98).

1. Michigan (11-0) vs. 14. Syracuse (9-3)

2. Nebraska (12-0) vs. 7. North Carolina (10-1)

3. Tennessee (11-1) vs. 6. Florida (9-2)

4. Florida State (10-1) vs. 5. UCLA (9-2)

No, Syracuse isn’t getting past that Michigan team. That’s alright, though, given that they’re the worst-seeded team in this event.

1992

While there’s no CFP or BCS rankings to look at, Syracuse was sixth in the AP Poll heading into bowl season. Now technically, there are seven power conferences at this time (add the Southwest Conference and Big East). And with Notre Dame ranked fifth ahead of SU, a No. 6 Orangemen team wouldn’t even make the field. But... holding seven spots for conference champs in this scenario seems like a stretch. So we’re just going top 8.

1. Miami (11-0) vs. 8. Georgia (9-2)

2. Alabama (12-0) vs. 7. Michigan (8-0-3)

3. Florida State (10-1) 6. Syracuse (9-2)

4. Texas A&M (12-0) vs. 5. Notre Dame (9-1-1)

Would Syracuse have beaten the No. 3 Seminoles? I’d bet not. But it would’ve been fun to see them get the chance to try (before getting stomped by ‘Bama in the semifinals even if they managed a win).

1987

Without a loss on the schedule, it’s still not THAT farfetched that we joke to claim a nonsensical national title here (SEC teams are happy to do worse). Syracuse easily makes the field in an eight-team event, just as they’d make a four-team field had it existed at the time.

1. Oklahoma (11-0) vs. 8. Michigan State (8-2-1)

2. Miami (11-0) vs. 7. LSU (9-1-1)

3. Florida State (10-1) vs. 6. Auburn (9-1-1)

4. Syracuse (11-0) vs. 5. Nebraska (10-1)

Admittedly, that Nebraska team potentially bests the Orangemen, since the Huskers were quite good and performed pretty well against a tougher schedule that year. Even if SU beats Nebraska, they’re up against Oklahoma — whose offense admittedly slowed down as the season wore on (failed to score more than 17 points in any of their final three games of the season). Ultimately, ‘Cuse probably winds up losing to either Miami or FSU in the title game.

Syracuse v Miami Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

12 Teams

A 12-team affair opens things up even further, and makes it easy enough to get guaranteed spots for the P5 plus the top G5, with six at-large invites. The collection of guaranteed conference bids expands to six when we track back to the BCS era, and seven in 1996 then reverting back to six before the Big East arrives.

Like before, here’s what it would’ve looked like last season:

Byes: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 3. Ohio State, 4. Notre Dame

5. Texas A&M (8-1) vs. 25. Oregon (4-2)

6. Oklahoma (8-2) vs. 11. Indiana (6-1)

7. Florida (8-3) vs. 10. Iowa State (8-3)

8. Cincinnati (9-0) vs. 9. Georgia (7-2)

Now which years is Syracuse getting in?

1998

The same technicality that got Syracuse into the eight-team hypothetical for 1998 gets them in here.

Byes: 1. Tennessee, 2. Florida State, 3. Kansas State, 4. Ohio State

5. UCLA (10-1) vs. 15. Syracuse (8-3)

6. Texas A&M (11-2) vs. 11. Nebraska (9-3)

7. Arizona (11-1) vs. 10. Tulane (11-0)

8. Florida (9-2) vs. 9. Wisconsin (10-1)

Same UCLA matchup. Though here we also narrowly avoid seeing Dino Babers on the other sideline, since he’s running Arizona’s offense in 1998. This game would’ve tasked him with outscoring Tulane.

1997

See above. Same rule applies with the Big East title in hand.

Byes: 1. Michigan, 2. Nebraska, 3. Tennessee, 4. Florida State

5. Florida State (10-1) vs. No. 18 Colorado State (10-2)

6. UCLA (9-2) vs. 14. Syracuse (9-3)

7. North Carolina (10-1) vs. 10. Kansas State (10-1)

8. Washington State (10-1) vs. 9. Ohio State (10-2)

UCLA was a pretty excellent team that year (their only losses were by a total of nine points to fellow playoff teams here Tennessee and Wazzu), and they’d have the firepower to get past the Orangemen. An upset win would just mean an even tougher game vs. the Vols next.

1992

The 1992 team got in on a technicality created by your “commissioner” in the eight-team event, but they’re easily in with 12 teams.

Byes: 1. Miami, 2. Alabama, 3. Florida State, 4. Texas A&M

5. Notre Dame (9-1-1) vs. 25. BYU (8-4)

6. Syracuse (9-2) vs. 11. Nebraska (9-2)

7. Michigan (8-0-3) vs. 10. Colorado (9-1-1)

8. Georgia (9-2) vs. 9. Washington (9-2)

Instead of facing the lesser Big Eight team like Syracuse did in real life (beating Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl), the Orangemen would get Nebraska — the conference champs that stomped the Buffaloes, 52-7. Not sure they pull off a win, to be honest. If they do, they’re up against a much better FSU team that likely bests them in the quarterfinals.

1987

Obviously, based on the fact that they were fourth. Here’s the rest of that field, with the full understanding that Miami probably trounces anyone they face in a potential title game.

Byes: 1. Miami, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Florida State, 4. Syracuse

5. Nebraska (10-1) vs. 14. Clemson (9-2)

6. Auburn (9-1-1) vs. 13. Texas A&M (9-2)

7. LSU (9-1-1) vs. 10. UCLA (9-2)

8. Michigan State (8-2-1) vs. 9. South Carolina (8-3)

Just too many independents to give out a G5 spot (also there were no “G5 teams” in the final regular season top 25.

St. John’s v Butler Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

16 Teams

Opening things up to 16 teams opens up additional possibilities for Syracuse. But admittedly, the increased field also means more guaranteed bids for conferences, so it shuts the Orange(men) out in those other fringe seasons. Still, you get four different 16-team playoff possibilities below, for the 1987, 1992, 1997 and 1998 seasons, respectively.

So before you ask: Syracuse was 20th in the final CFP rankings, so would’ve been left out. And in 2001, SU wasn’t in the BCS rankings despite going 9-3. The Orange were 16th in the final regular season poll of 1991 and 17th in 1988, so just missed both times.

1998

With more teams, we’re cutting down on prose for these.

1. Tennessee vs. NR Idaho

2. Florida State vs. NR Marshall

3. Kansas State vs. 16. Air Force

4. Ohio State vs. 15. Syracuse

5. UCLA vs. 12 Georgia Tech

6. Texas A&M vs. 11. Arkansas

7. Arizona vs. 10. Tulane

8. Florida vs. 9. Wisconsin

The top half of the bracket’s not ideal. If they can get past the Buckeyes and Florida/Wisconsin, though, it would’ve spurred a rematch with Tennessee, who won by a single point (gnashes teeth) over SU in week one.

1997

Syracuse would’ve just missed the field if not for the auto bid.

1. Michigan vs. NR Utah State

2. Nebraska vs. NR Marshall

3. Tennessee vs. 22. Southern Miss

4. Florida State vs. 18. Colorado State

5. UCLA vs. 14. Syracuse

6. Florida vs. 11. Penn State

7. North Carolina vs. 10. Kansas State

8. Washington State vs. 9. Ohio State

UCLA and the top half of the bracket isn’t great, and we don’t want any part of FSU in round two.

1992

As you know by now, SU’s in with ease here. Though you won’t like the matchup they get...

1. Miami vs. NR Nevada

2. Alabama vs. NR Bowling Green

3. Florida State vs. 25. BYU

4. Texas A&M vs. 13. Stanford

5. Notre Dame vs. 12. NC State

6. Syracuse vs. 11 Nebraska

7. Michigan vs. 10. Colorado

8. Georgia vs. 9. Washington

Dammit, Nebraska again. At least it’s the other half of the bracket, though.

1987

Finally, something that seems to be in our favor.

1. Oklahoma vs. NR Eastern Michigan

2. Miami vs. NR San Jose State

3. Florida State vs. NR Wyoming

4. Syracuse vs. 14. Clemson

5. Nebraska vs. 13. Texas A&M

6. Auburn vs. 12. Notre Dame

7. LSU vs. 10. UCLA

8. Michigan State vs. 9. South Carolina

The top four this season was extremely good, so there’s no “easy” game here assuming SU gets past Clemson in what becomes the opening shot in the eventual internet rivalry. Syracuse was good enough to squeak by Nebraska, but TBD if they’d be able to beat Oklahoma. In any case, Miami was a juggernaut.

***

Of course none of the above actually happened, but it’s a fun exercise to wonder “what if?” Think Syracuse could’ve won any of these hypothetical playoffs? Or have other ideas on what a quality playoff would look like? Share your own thoughts below.