The bye week really couldn’t have come at a better possible time. After four games and too many crucial injuries, and following a game against No. 8-ranked LSU that virtually no one outside of the Syracuse University football team could ever have been competitive, the Orange get a break as the prepare for what has to be considered the most crucial three game stretch of the season.
That’s because as soon as the bye week is over, the Orange are getting ready to face South Florida, followed by Virginia and Pittsburgh. Not exactly world class opponents, but honestly, that’s exactly the point. At 3-1, the Orange have done exactly what they needed to do in the first four weeks of the year, and the accomplished much of it without a few key players being available.
And that’s why the bye week is so critical to the rest of the season.
Finally, the Orange can get a little bit of much needed rest, enabling Scott Shafer and his staff to ease Eric Dungey and Erv Philips back into the lineup. Any adjustments that need to be made after the first few weeks can be made with two full weeks to prepare for a trip to USF, a team that’s struggled mightily so far this season. The Bulls just had their bye week and will be taking on a 4-0 Memphis team on Friday night, and could very well limp into the game against the Orange with a record of 1-3, with the lone win coming against Florida A&M.
Thanks to offensive coordinator Tim Lester, the Orange are starting to put together an offense that looks like it may actually surpass simply being competent, and edge its way toward being considered “occasionally explosive.” That’s what we saw before Dungey was taken out by a vicious cheap shot against CMU, and the way Lester was able to scheme and adjust when forced to play walk-on Zack Mahoney and not only win the CMU game but get three passing touchdowns against LSU bodes well moving forward.
Especially when you consider Dungey will be getting back one of his favorite early targets in Philips, who caught two touchdown passes from the true freshman gunslinger against Rhode Island before leaving that game at halftime. Philips hasn’t been back on the field since, but appears to be ready to go.
Dungey, like Philips, is expected to be back when the Orange the on the Bulls. The return of this potentially dynamic duo gives the Orange a big shot in the arm, and no one should be happier about that fact than Chuck Bullough, Tim Daoust, and the rest of the Syracuse defensive unit. Bullough and Daoust should be commended for the way their defense played against LSU. Yes, Leonard Fournette ran for 244 yards, but come on. That dude is basically Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson come to life. He’s unstoppable, and is almost certainly going to blow past 2,000 yards this year on his way to picking up the Heisman.
With a record of 3-1, the Orange are halfway to the basic goal of earning a bowl berth. With six wins needed, Syracuse has a few very strong opportunities to get there, and if Dungey and Philips are back at 100% and the offense starts to click, this looks like it could be a very dangerous Syracuse team. That said, there are three games on the schedule that look a little more winnable than the other remaining showdowns: USF, Virginia, and Pitt. Also known as the next three games on the docket.
I’ve already mentioned USF, and Virginia could potentially be a dumpster fire by the time they face the Orange. Mike London’s seat is about as hot as it could possibly get, and the Cavs were just embarrassed by Boise State, 56-14, to fall to 1-3 on the year. The only win came against William & Mary, in a game the Hoos very nearly lost. Virginia has a bye this week, and then takes on Pittsburgh right when SU is headed down to face USF.
Pitt has the best record of the three next opponents, and is one heartbreak away from being 3-0. The Panthers topped Youngstown State and Akron to open the year before falling to Iowa on a last second field goal, and will be taking on Virginia Tech this coming weekend before battling the Hoos. I expect Pitt to lose to Virginia Tech and beat UVA, so by the time they take on the Orange they should probably be 3-2 on the year. They’ll be the most dangerous opponent in this three game stretch, but remember, reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year James Conner has been lost for the season and the Panthers haven’t really been able to replace his production.
There’s a very realistic chance Syracuse could get through this stretch with three victories, and head into Florida State with a record of 6-1 and, at that point, almost certainly a few votes in the Top 25 poll. That would be enormous for the perception of the program, which finally started getting some nods of approval following a heck of a battle against LSU yesterday. Even if the team gets through this stretch with a record of 5-2, that’s a heck of a nice spot to be in with a couple winnable games down the stretch, including a season ending showdown with Boston College. The last time Syracuse faced Boston College with bowl eligibility on the line, Terrel Hunt found Josh Parris for a last second touchdown and the Orange went on to win the Texas Bowl.
It’s too early to predict that the Orange will emerge from this three game stretch with a record of 6-1, but the mere fact that it’s possible is huge. At that point, Syracuse will have locked up its fourth bowl appearance in the past six years, and it should in all likelihood guarantee Shafer a contract extension and help with recruiting as the buzz around the program grows stronger.
This is a critical stretch of games for Syracuse. The Orange need to get back to full strength, maintain the momentum from a great game against LSU, and keep building toward becoming an explosive, competent offense. The future could be very bright for Syracuse, but all of that goes away if the team isn’t able to take care of business between now and Halloween.