A lot has happened in the last two years with the Syracuse football team.
Two years ago on the very same field at Memorial Stadium, the Orange looked completely hapless in a 54-0 drubbing. SU lost Eric Dungey to an injury and also plenty of pride as it returned to Central New York en route to a 4-8 season.
Compare and contrast that with its effort on Saturday afternoon.
Syracuse wasn’t looking to play to stay competitive, or to save face. SU looked like a team that believed—nay, expected—it could upset the No. 2/3 team in the country in one of the most hostile road environments, aptly nicknamed Death Valley.
The Orange led throughout most of Saturday, and all the way until the final 41 seconds. A gassed defense finally relented and ended up being gashed by Travis Etienne. But Clemson needed every bit of Etienne’s talent to edge past the pesky Orange.
Even if it was a loss, it was still a statement. The Orange is an ACC doormat no longer. A program that has suffered through the dry years of Scott Shafer and Greg Robinson seems to have finally found its footing.
The steps forward have carried with it certain expectations.
While last year’s 27-24 upset at the Carrier Dome was thrilling, it was a fluke. Clemson was the superior team at the time.
This year, Syracuse carried a 4-0 record into the game, and if the Orange had won, it would’ve been an upset, but no one would consider it an aberration. The gap between the two teams has closed significantly.
It was hard to gauge where the Orange stood until Saturday. Prior to the game, SU’s wins had come against UConn, Wagner and Western Michigan, and a watered-down FSU team. Not exactly top flight competition.
In contrast, the Tigers were a worthy opponent and once again a legitimate title contender. And the Orange gave them all they could handle.
The Clemson loss stings, but it shows the Orange is for real, and the respect from the outside world is coming.
That much was evident in the college polls this week, when the Orange jumped in the rankings, sitting three spots outside the top 25. (SU has not been ranked since 2001.)
The post-game talk wasn’t about moral victories. No one celebrated the fact that it was close. Instead, Syracuse expected to win.
“It’s a loss in the loss column,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said. “And we have to move on.”
Syracuse next plays at Pittsburgh on Saturday, a field that the Orange hasn’t won at since midway through the Paul Pasqualoni era. After a much needed bye week, the Orange hosts North Carolina a team that was projected to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division.
A quick look beyond that shows only one ranked team left on SU’s schedule, a date at Yankee Stadium with Notre Dame.
That has the Orange sniffing a bowl game, and perhaps even something more lofty if it can stay healthy and focused.
Said Babers: “We can’t be satisfied with coming close.”