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Syracuse football: recalibrating the Orange’s path ahead as ACC play nears

How will this season play out heading into the Clemson game and beyond?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been down this road before — an undefeated start followed by a disastrous finish for the Syracuse Orange football team.

The Orange in 2022 sprinted to a historic 6-0 start, then crashed back down to Earth with six losses in the program’s final seven games. Fast forward to this season and Syracuse fans observe the same situation — a 4-0 start to the 2023 season, the first out-of-conference sweep in program history and the 20th-best ranking according to ESPN’s College Football Power Index heading into this weekend’s game versus the Clemson Tigers.

Syracuse’s next eight games will absolutely make or break what comes next following this season. Clinching a bowl game will be the easy part — ESPN gives the Orange a 99.8% chance of getting to six wins. But, how Syracuse will get to that result remains a fascinating discussion.

The TNIAAM crew projected the Orange to finish somewhere between six and eight wins — but the hardest fact to quantify was how would Syracuse overcome a brutal October slate which includes no home games and two AP top-25 opponents followed by multiple key “swing” games in the back-half of the Orange’s ACC schedule.

Harken back to last season — an undefeated Syracuse team nearly overcame the odds and upset then-#5 Clemson on the road before succumbing to the likes of Florida State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and company. The matchup versus the Tigers turned the tide for the Orange in the completely wrong direction.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Syracuse at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Obviously, the circumstances are a bit different in 2023 compared to 2022: namely, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers sit at 2-2 and must win in Syracuse’s territory.

But the impact of a Syracuse loss still feels the same, to an extent.

Syracuse’s October slate features the Clemson game followed by three road matchups against #15 North Carolina, #5 Florida State and Virginia Tech. Yes, we’re still talking about an Orange team under coach Dino Babers that sits with top-15 marks in total offense and defense; yet, the disaster potential is definitely looming.

That’s not to say Syracuse fans should hit the panic button just yet. The Orange pulled off early surprise-ish wins over Louisville and NC State last year to get to seven wins, whereas this season’s ACC slate looks more manageable compared to last year once you get to the games against Boston College (1-3, 0-2), Virginia Tech (1-3, 0-0) and Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-1).

Christian, Mike and I back in early July when we discussed the Orange’s schedule (mostly) agreed that the Clemson/UNC/FSU trio would result in three-straight losses. The rest of Syracuse’s schedule following that tough stretch includes the following opponents:

Syracuse’s ACC Slate Following the Clemson/UNC/FSU Trio

Opponent (home/road) ESPN SP+ Rankings ACC Preseason Poll Rankings Game Predictions (Dom, Mike and Christian)
Opponent (home/road) ESPN SP+ Rankings ACC Preseason Poll Rankings Game Predictions (Dom, Mike and Christian)
Virginia Tech (road) 80th 11th Toss-Up x3
Boston College (home) 96th 13th Solid Win x2, Lean Win x1
Pittsburgh (neutral-site) 53rd T-6th Lean Loss x2, Toss-Up x1
Georgia Tech (road) 78th 12th Lean Win x3
Wake Forest (home) 50th 9th Toss-Up x2, Lean Loss x1
Syracuse will play in several season-defining games following three tough weekends in a row versus Clemson, UNC and FSU.

We can confirm that Syracuse should still be odds-on favorites versus Boston College and Georgia Tech, barring disaster. The Pitt game feels more intriguing given the Panthers’ offensive struggles to start the year, but a) Syracuse has historically struggled against Pitt and b) losing that home game to Yankee Stadium is still a tough blow.

To tie everything up — the big takeaway moving forward is that this could be a roller coaster-type season once all is said and done. There’s a universe where this 4-0 Syracuse team loses three in a row before bouncing back down the stretch.

At the end of the day, the goal for the Orange was simple this season under Babers — establish some consistency down the road, and that invokes clinching a bowl game for a second-consecutive season, something the program has not done since 2012 and 2013.

Syracuse has mostly struggled to do that in the 21st century — the Orange only have seven seasons with seven wins or more since 2000 and nine years with a .500 record or better in 23 tries.

Earning a bowl bid was the original goal, but now it feels like this team can accomplish more. How they handle the next three games could determine how fans look at the 2023 Orange.