There are a lot of bowl games in college football. In all, 40 bowl games were played following the 2016 college football season (not including the National Championship), with 80 out of 128 FBS level teams competing.
For those keeping score at home, but who don’t have a calculator handy, that’s a whopping 62.5% of all teams in FBS competing in a bowl. The ACC alone had 11 teams – eleven – compete in bowl games.
The only three ACC teams not to play in a bowl in 2016 were Duke, Virginia, and yes, sadly (and obviously, since if you’re reading this you’re a Syracuse fan and already know this), our beloved Orange.
Of course, with all of those teams needing to fill all of those spots, it’s getting a hell of a lot easier to become bowl eligible. This year, 17 teams that finished with a .500 record made a bowl game, and three teams who fell below the six win threshold typically needed were invited to round out that roster of 80 teams. Seven of the last nine years, teams with losing records have made bowl games.
So in 2017, why not Syracuse? The Orange certainly seem to be on the upswing with head coach Dino Babers. Sure, the team finished the year with a record of 4-8, though it has to be mentioned that they did so 1) against a brutal schedule, 2) without the starting quarterback for a third of the season, and 3) while implementing entirely new systems on offense and defense.
Babers himself said it would take until around the sixth game of year two for the team to really start clicking, so by the time ACC games roll around in 2017, the Orange should be playing at a higher level if our still relatively new coach is correct.
Now, there are a couple of things to consider when assessing whether or not the Orange can go bowling in 2017:
If the 2016 schedule was brutal, how can the Orange hope to make a vast improvement with an even less forgiving schedule in 2017?
Can Eric Dungey stay healthy for a full season? Through his first two seasons, he’s played in exactly eight games both years. For the Orange to succeed in 2017, the team needs him for all 12.
The offense isn’t what we need to be concerned with. It’ll be just fine. But the defense… what can be done about the defense?
Going back to that first point, while the full schedule hasn’t been released yet, we do know all 12 regular season opponents for Syracuse, and where those games will be played.
Home: Central Connecticut, Middle Tennessee, Central Michigan, Boston College, Clemson, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh
Away: LSU, Florida State, Louisville, Miami, NC State
Look at that goddamn away slate again. Who the hell did Syracuse piss off to get such a seemingly impossible road schedule? NC State should be winnable, but other than that, at this point it’s hard to foresee the Orange going on the road and beating any of those other four teams. FSU, Louisville, and Miami are all expected to challenge for the ACC crown (and Lamar Jackson is back next season for the Cardinals, lest we forget), and trying to win at Death Valley is – to make a significant understatement – not easy.
The home slate is much more forgiving, with Central Connecticut the sure-thing out of the group. But even Middle Tennessee went 8-5 and played in the Hawaii Bowl this year and will certainly be no pushover, while Central Michigan also went bowling, finishing the year at 6-7 after a loss to Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl.
The good news is that the most winnable ACC games for the Orange are all at home this year, with Boston College, Wake Forest, and Pittsburgh (who will certainly be tough, but is a team that, by the time the Orange face them next year, will be beatable) all coming to the Carrier Dome.
And – oh yeah – defending national champion Clemson, who will be without Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams, but who my instincts tell me will be just fine next season.
So are there six (or even five, considering the Orange could conceivably get to a bowl game with a 5-7 record) victories on that schedule? Sure. Central Connecticut, Middle Tennessee, and Central Michigan are all teams that the Orange should beat, and Boston College and Wake Forest are far from world beaters. Pittsburgh and NC State can both probably be thrown into the “toss up” pile if we’re being optimistic about the growth of the program this offseason, so that gives the Orange seven games in which they have a very real chance of coming out on top.
And of course, an upset is certainly a possibility. Just look at what happened with Virginia Tech this year, in year one under Dino Babers. So could Syracuse knock off one of Clemson, LSU, Louisville, Florida State, or Miami?
Sure. Anything’s possible, and stranger things have certainly happened. Like Clemson, LSU is losing a lot this year, particularly in the form of Leonard Fournette (not to mention projected first round NFL draft pick Jamal Adams, one of the top defensive backs in the nation, who is also turning pro). Louisville looked a whole lot more beatable by the end of the year, and Lamar Jackson came crashing back down to earth with some dismal late season performances, Heisman win aside (and with the way Deshaun Watson played in the title game last night, something tells me this is going to be a Heisman people look back on and regret not giving to the Clemson signal caller).
But really, it all depends on a couple things, which I’ve touched on up above: can Eric Dungey stay healthy, and can Brian Ward’s defense take a big step forward? There are certainly other factors – like the evolution of the offensive line and running game – but Dungey’s health and the defense’s ability to limit big plays are the bigger keys to finding a winning season and a bowl berth.
If Dungey can play a full season, and the defense can show some solid growth in year two in the Tampa 2, then a bowl game – even with 2017’s incredibly difficult schedule – is certainly attainable.