Point (or run or goal) differential allows a more nuanced look at a team’s performance than just wins and losses. While this measurement more commonly shows up in baseball, hockey, and pro football standings, point differential is not frequently seen in the college football ledger.
This is understandable, as there are different levels of competition across NCAA football, including an informal division among FBS teams between “Power Five” and “Group of Five” schools. Throw in that teams play a small number of games, so a game or two can make a team’s overall point differential deceptive if they make trips to the hidden side of the wood shed.
However, splitting up point differential by level of competition may give us a better understanding of Syracuse’s rebuilding football program over the last decade, encompassing the tenures of head coaches Doug Marrone, Scott Shafer, and Dino Babers.
Marrone was tasked with starting the rebuild in the last few years of Big East football. Shafer took over and after SU jumped into the deeper waters of the ACC, where the tougher sledding stalled the program’s momentum. Babers seems to be on the path to rebuilding SU football based on some wins on the field and in recruiting, but it remains to be seen if he can get the team back to prominence.
With the Orange playing in a Power Five conference, the team’s performance over these nine seasons will be split into in games against teams currently in those conferences and teams that are not. When the former Big East split, Louisville (after a year in the AAC), Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and West Virginia ended up in Power Five conferences while Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida now reside in the Group of Five’s American Athletic Conference. A better measure of where Syracuse stands is achieved by comparing them to the competitors at their current level.
(NOTE: While they have no conference affiliation, Notre Dame is treated as a “Power Five” school.)
2009: vs. Power Five – 2-5 record, -52 point differential; 2-3 record, -29 point differential against other teams
The Orange struggled in Marrone’s debut, dropping five games by at least 20 points, including a pair to teams who currently reside in the American Conference. The team’s lone Big East win was the season’s highlight, as SU pounded #25 Rutgers, 31-13.
2010: vs. Power Five – 3-4 record, -59 point differential; 5-1 record, +96 point differential against other teams
Syracuse made its first bowl appearance under Marrone in his second campaign by gutting out four wins by five points or less. Outscoring non-Power Five teams by 96 total points looks impressive, but it was built almost entirely on the strength of beating Akron, Maine, and Colgate by a combined 85 points. It feels safe to say that while they got to 8-5 overall, the team probably was not as good as their record, especially with a slightly worse point differential against Power Five teams than the preceding year’s 4-8 team.
2011: vs. Power Five – 2-4 record, -21 point differential; 3-3 record, -31 point differential against other teams
The 2011 team started strong on paper, reaching 5-2 with a nationally-televised 49-23 rout of #11 West Virginia, but wins over Rhode Island, Toledo, and Tulane by a total of 13 points propped up that record. Setting aside that upset of the Mountaineers, SU was 1-4 with a -47 point differential against Power Five teams, marks that were very close to the 2009 team.
2012: vs. Power Five – 4-4 record, +19 point differential; 4-1 record, +49 point differential against other teams
Marrone’s best team was the first SU team to finish with a positive point differential against current Power Five programs since the 2001 team went 10-3, ending the season ranked #14 in the nation. The 2012 squad’s biggest loss was by 13 points against #2 USC, but the team knocked off the #11 team in the nation at home for the second straight season, blowing out Louisville, 45-26. While the Orange pulled out one-point wins over Pitt and South Florida, they also dropped their opener against Northwestern by a single point.
2013: vs. Power Five – 5-6 record, -124 point differential; 2-0 record, +89 point differential against other teams
Shafer’s first team made it three bowl victories in four years for Syracuse, but the point differential against Power Five teams was scary. SU lost games by 21, 35, 56, and 56 points to Power Five teams that season. The Orange barely clinched bowl eligibility, scoring the winning touchdown with six seconds left in the season finale against Boston College, the only time they scored 30 or more points against a Power Five opponent.
2014: vs. Power Five – 1-9 record, -125 point differential; 2-0 record, +38 point differential against other teams
Syracuse did a better job hanging around against elite teams in Shafer’s second season, but the offense was still remarkably weak, exceeding 20 points just three times, including eking out a 27-26 double overtime win in the opener against FCS foe Villanova. Of the nine losses against Power Five teams, only one was by single digits.
2015: vs. Power Five – 2-7 record, -74 point differential; 2-1 record, +29 point differential against other teams
The third and final season under Shafer was a combination of his first two teams, as they squashed a lower division team, then had a few close losses against Power Five foes. Four losses to Power Five teams came by ten points or less, three of them ranked, including #1 Clemson and #8 LSU. While the point differential against Power Five teams was improved, the point differential against lower level opponents got even worse despite a 47-point win over Rhode Island.
2016: vs. Power Five – 2-7 record, -163 point differential; 2-1 record, +8 point differential against other teams
Babers’ first season with the Orange was spent rewriting the school record book for poor defensive play. Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign was unveiled to a national television audience on a Friday night in the Carrier Dome in early September, showing the defensive deficiencies that would reappear against high-end skill position talent all season long, save for the Virginia Tech upset. The offense was hit-or-miss, topping 28 or more points seven times, but also being limited to 14 points of less three times.
2017: vs. Power Five – 2-7 record, -117 point differential; 2-1 record, +60 point differential against other teams
The second season under Babers was a jump forward, despite the team hanging another 4-8 record. The defense was considerably better early in the season, keeping the team in close losses to #25 LSU, #8 Miami, and Florida State, all on the road, as well as pulling their weight in the program’s biggest win in three decades when they knocked off #2 Clemson.
So, where does that leave the Orange coming into the 2018 season?
Well, there is one thing to note that puts a different spin on the 2017 season and how improved the team was over the preceding year.
Eric Dungey was unable to play in the last three games of 2017. In the first of those three contests, Zack Mahoney was the surprise starter at quarterback. Mahoney was effective early, throwing for three scores to help the Orange jump out to a 14-point halftime lead. Then, the roof then caved in on the season.
In the remaining 2 ½ games, the Orange were outscored by 109 points, all in ACC play. In other words, during their first 6 ½ games against Power Five teams, Syracuse was outscored by a total of eight points. They lost Dungey and, as soon as an opponent had the opportunity to make adjustments, everything cratered. The SU offense became incapable of consistent production of almost any kind and the overtaxed defense suffered. A thin, banged-up team lost its leader and the wheels came off.
The team is finishing summer workouts with good health and the younger players Babers has recruited are a year older, stronger, faster, and smarter. If Dungey can stay healthy for a full season, it could be very interesting season for Syracuse.