Item: At first glance, there hasn’t been so much to look forward to with Syracuse football for the upcoming season under hurry-up offensive impresario and first year coach Dino Barbers since, believe it or not, Greg Robinson was named coach in Jan. 2005, only because of the unknown and newness to bringing west coast outsiders Daryl Gross as AD and Robinson on to campus to try and upright the football program after 14 seasons under Paul Pasqualoni. Well, we all know how badly that turned out. Even after the tenures of the more known commodities in Coach Mac player Doug Marrone (1983-85), followed by his defensive coordinator Scott Shafer in the last two head coaching cycles both ending on a sour note for different reasons, the football program has lacked the leadership consistency and success that new AD John Wildhack and Babers, who had a loud voice in his own boss’s hiring, hope to finally tackle season-by-season in building a top-to-bottom plan to compete in the ACC by the time the new schedule format (SU reportedly wants nine ACC games each year) kicks in for the 2019 season. The anticipation of Act I of “a game that’s faster than (we’ve) ever seen on turf” is building to the Sept. 2 Dome opener, as we look at the season in the schedule’s chronological order.
Part II – The second half of the season, beginning with game seven, follows. The first half of the season, which ran Tuesday, is here.
Just when Virginia Tech is scheduled to play a rare game in Syracuse due to the ACC’s current home/away scheduling rotation between the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions, future Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer, who had an atypical Dome record of 1-5 while both schools were in the Big East, has gone off to retirement after 29 seasons in Blacksburg. In comes a coach with a lot of promise in Justin Fuente, who turned his four seasons at Memphis, including a 1-8 start in his first nine games, and a 26-23 overall record, into the launching pad to land as Beamer’s successor for a program truly at a crossroads. Tech has gone 7-6 three of the last four seasons, winning three of four lower rung bowl games, but much more is expected for a school that made eight appearances in major bowl games under Beamer. The Orange make their only October home date a memorable one putting points on the scoreboard in each quarter of a 35-30 nail-biting victory, not decided until a Hokies fourth down pass on the SU 12 yard line goes awry with 0:10 to play and drops Virginia Tech’s all-time Dome record to 2-6. (4-3, 2-1)
It’s simply amazing to us that a full 12 seasons after he left the Syracuse program, having already coached for 32 years, Pasqualoni is still recruiting vigorously and teaching young men the game that has been his life, from high school, to Div III, to the NFL, and back to college again, now as the defensive line coach for Steve Addazio at Boston College, a role reversal from the duo’s days at SU where Addazio served as a Coach P assistant for four years in the late 1990s. While both teams had trouble scoring last season, that’s not the case this year, nor in this game played on a beautiful Indian summer day in suburban Boston. In a back and forth affair that had all the makings of a game in which the team with the ball last would win, the Eagles oblige, driving 60 yards against a tired ‘Cuse “D” in the final minutes to win a wild one 40-38. (4-4, 2-2)
After eight straight weeks of games beginning before Labor Day, an open week is much appreciated by all those associated with the program over the extended Halloween weekend before a challenging trip to near-to-the-top-of-the polls Clemson. What more can you say about the Tigers program recruiting rise under Dabo Swinney to challenge Florida State for not only ACC prominence, but an annual spot in the four team College Football Playoff? Yes, Clemson once won a national title (1981), but with the league’s most dynamic player in junior quarterback Deshaun Watson coming oh so close last season against Alabama, there’s no place to go but back to the title game. Before nearly 82,000 screaming fans at Death Valley in another Saturday early evening kickoff in perfect weather just like the ’14 game, SU sticks around for a quarter and a half before Watson does his magic and earns a lengthy fourth quarter rest in the Tigers 40-22 rout. (4-5, 2-3)
Just as he heads into a season in which the expectations increase after a three year record of 18-20 (and the record is 0-18 during that stretch in games against Power 5 teams with a winning record), North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren has a two headed quarterback battle underway heading into the season opener next week, and he’s likely to play both players well into September. That never seems to bode well as the season wears on, but Doeren will have enough to worry about with a schedule that includes an early Oct. three week blitz of hosting Notre Dame then going to Clemson and Louisville. Ouch. In an exciting up and down the field type game, with the team possessing the ball last in the position to win, the Wolfpack looked primed to pull off a road win driving deep into ‘Cuse territory late. That is until a botched snap bounces into the arms of the Syracuse “D,” and after one snap in victory formation SU celebrates a hard-earned 38-35 win and a respectable .500 mark overall and in conference with two games to play. (5-5, 3-3)
To Orange Watch, the current Florida State annual series in the ACC, entering its fourth year and moving forward, is a lot like the old Penn State rivalry for Syracuse in the Eastern Football Independent era of the 1970s and most of the 80s, before the series took a long sabbatical in 1990. Each season posed the question would this be the year SU knocked off the Nittany Lions? The same can be said of FSU which has dominated the Orange all-time in nine meetings, or since a lone SU win in 1966 at Archbold behind the brilliant Floyd Little. The closest Syracuse has come since then is a 17-13 Dome loss to the No. 8 ‘Noles in 2004. For the final home game of the season the question can be asked is this the year SU beats Florida State? Ah, the answer through twists and turns of another fun game turns out to be “No.” In the end, despite the tremendous noise from the 40,000 plus on hand to root for the upset, a late FSU score on a locks away a 38-21 win. (5-6, 3-4)
The most amazing story in the ACC this summer has been the comeback of Pittsburgh running back James Conner after treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma after suffering a severe season- ending knee injury in the season opener against Youngstown State. The great news is that Conner was declared to be cancer free in May, and vows to be running the ball like his old first team All American-self of the 2014 season. With its postseason fate on the line in looking to finish off the beginning of the Babers era with the bonus of an extra game, extra practices, and a bowl trip somewhere for the first time since 2013, Syracuse comes out firing against its now longest time regular rival (70 meetings dating back to 1916) taking a 14-0 lead on a snowy, chilly afternoon at Heinz Field. But in storybook fashion, Conner dazzles in the second half with runs in and around the SU pursuit scoring twice, and a last ditch effort fails to get into field goal range as the Orange succumb 28-27, painfully close but shut out of a bowl game. (5-7, 3-5)
But as Babers pointed out way back at his introductory press conference, it takes about midway through his second season to get his lightning fast offense in sync, so the tantalizing previews we’ll get at times this coming season, will make the wait seem that much longer until a year from now and the 2017 season.