The last time Syracuse football was ranked in the AP Top 25 at any point during the season was 2001, also the last time they finished the year in the rankings. After winning a 51-41 shootout with N.C. State on Saturday, the Orange broke the first streak and showed up at #22 this week. With the program finding its sea legs under third-year head coach Dino Babers, the opportunity to do a lot more than just be ranked for one week in late October is now at hand.
Babers built his reputation at Bowling Green, where he won a MAC title in 2015 behind high-powered offenses. This year’s Syracuse team is following that same formula. The Orange are averaging 44 points per game and ranked seventh in the nation in scoring offense.
Eric Dungey is a do-everything quarterback. He’s got a 60% completion rate for 7.6 yards-per-attempt and a 13-4 TD/INT ratio. That’s respectable, though not spectacular. What elevates Dungey is the fact he’s also the leading rusher in Babers’ offense.
Babers’ receiving corps has big-play threats in Jamal Custis and Nykiem Johnson. Sean Riley, whose 43 catches lead the team, is the possession receiver who keeps the chains moving. In their last two wins over North Carolina and N.C. State, Syracuse has blown out the scoreboard with 91 combined points.
The early success is not driven by the schedule. This puts Syracuse in sharp contrast to Boston College, another 6-2 team in the Clemson-dominated Atlantic Division of the ACC. Where the Eagles have their toughest games still ahead, the Orange have already shown their mettle.
A 55-42 win over Western Michigan, one of the three best teams in the MAC, got the year started. A 30-7 blowout of Florida State followed. The Seminoles may have fallen badly the last two years, but given their talent level, being able to hammer them is still a signature moment for a rising program like Syracuse. But the most impressive showing was a loss—Syracuse went into Death Valley and had Clemson on the ropes late in the fourth quarter before losing 27-23.
The Orange have to show they can maintain consistency these next two weeks against Louisville and Wake Forest. Then comes the big showdown on November 17, when they go to Yankee Stadium to play Notre Dame. It’s going to have major implications in the national picture, given the Irish standing in the Playoff race. But if Syracuse arrives at 8-2, they’ll also be looking to make their own case for one of the prestige New Year’s Six bowls.
To make that happen, the Orange will need just a little bit of defense, where they rank 77th in the country. You can spin that positively and say that the performance has improved each year under Babers. But spin won’t avoid an upset these next couple weeks and it won’t give Syracuse a puncher’s chance at knocking off Notre Dame.
What will give the Orange a chance is some big plays on the defensive side. They have two good defensive ends, Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. They have a safety in Andre Cisco who has a nose for the football. Some big plays—a sack, a turnover, etc—at key moments can be the difference in a game where the offenses are trading blows.
The New Year’s Six is admittedly a longshot—even if Syracuse sweeps these last four games, they’d still be right on the bubble of the big bowls. But the mere fact we’re even talking about it as the calendar moves to November shows that Babers has this program trending back upward.