Over the past three seasons, some of Syracuse football’s crowning achievements end with promise, but not a win. A moral victory as some may call it.
Sure, there have been big wins. Victories over ranked Virginia Tech and Clemson teams certainly come to mind. But for every one of those, there seems to be just as many games like LSU and Miami: close, but not quite good enough. For some Orange fans who are trusting in this makeover of the program, those are good enough to keep you entertained.
Down in Clemson, Dino Babers had a chance for a new first: a marquee road win. For about 59 minutes of game time, it looked like Syracuse was coming home with a 5-0 record and arguably the greatest upset in SU history. But when the dust settled and Orange Nation awoke from these dreams, the real result was a 27-23 loss where SU was outscored 20-7 in the second half. All of this despite the “Golden Boy of College Football” getting knocked out of the game before halftime and, by all intents and purposes, an inexperienced third string quarterback leading the Tigers.
But this was no moral victory. It was heartbreaking. Mark it down, September 29th, 2018: the day the term “moral victory” was evicted from the vocabulary of Syracuse fans.
Head coach Dino Babers was clearly frustrated after the game. His postgame press conference answers were mostly short and you could feel the pain in his voice.
Eric Dungey appeared to be a mix of on the verge of tears and having just recovered from some locker room waterworks. But don’t mistake that for softness. That’s the raw emotion of a guy who truly believed this team would go undefeated in his senior season. Someone who could care less that his unlikely Heisman campaign may be back in the spotlight.
Sure, the Orange surged in the AP polls to the point of nearly getting ranked after a loss. But at this point, there seems to be a numbness to the fractional margins of defeat against elite opponents. This wasn’t another case of the moral victory, this was a turning point in the program.
For the remainder of the season, Syracuse has a sense of respect from the entire nation. Opponents are no longer viewing them as the basketball school with a gadget up-tempo offense.
They’re a team that believes it will close the regular season 7-0. They’re a team that will be picked by some experts to spoil Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff bid. They’re a team that made me overhear a Clemson fan saying “we’re gonna have to face Syracuse again in the ACC Championship.”
While that last point is an impossibility since the Tigers and the Orange are in the same division of the ACC, there’s a national sense now that SU can be a top 3 team in the conference.
Losses to the third ranked team in the country aren’t supposed to feel gut-wrenching. But Saturday did. And with it, the new standard of Orange football became not being content with “close enough” anymore.