Preseason practice is less than a week in for the Syracuse University football team.
While it's probably too early to have a good grasp on who will start in positions that have the fiercest competition, it's never too early to speculate on the season ahead.
As if the fan base needs a refresher, the Orange finished the 2011 season on an abysmal 5-game losing streak that cost the team a chance at back to back bowl games for the first time since the 1990's. While that was tough for the fans, and the team most of all to swallow, it perhaps has set the stage for a redemption year in 2012.
Just about every player I spoke with at media day on Saturday insisted that last year is in the past, ancient history. When I asked if it served as a motivator for this year, you could tell in their voice that nobody wants to be left out of a bowl game again, especially the seniors.
There's something about this team that just tells me failure is not an option, and is not likely, despite the brutal non-conference schedule.
Part of that could be contributed to the closed Spring practices, which Head Coach Doug Marrone says are closed in order to help build team chemistry. It's not to say that there wasn't team chemistry before, but it appears this team is a bit closer.
That team chemistry factor, which shouldn't be underestimated, will be forged even stronger as the team heads to Fort Drum next week to spend a week practicing and living the military way on the base. As far as teamwork is concerned, it doesn't get much better than the armed forces.
Now, does working on team building, and heading to Fort Drum mean suddenly the Orange should be favored over USC? Of course not. But, if I were a betting man, I'd feel comfortable wagering money in the Orange in any close game in the fourth quarter. It'll lead to more of those intangibles and the belief in the team that they won't lose.
When you look at the 2012 schedule that may be the most important factor. So many games, at least here in the preseason, look like toss-up games.
Last year, we saw a split in those games in some ways. Early in the year, the Orange won games against Wake Forest and Toledo by grinding until the end, while later in the season they fell short to Rutgers in double-overtime and to UConn by 7.
It may not seem like the most important thing to the fan at home, but these extensive team building measures could be the difference between a bowl game and being home for the holidays.
That said, the season really starts out with a game that could decide a bowl fate. The schedule is really that bunched with evenly matched teams and a couple games really could make all the difference in the world.
Northwestern comes from a power conference, and while it has to replace many starters on both sides of the ball, Pat Fitzgerald always has his team ready to play. The last time these teams battled SU won in a 37-34 thriller; SU by a touchdown over the Wildcats. I feel like the Orange can't and won't lose this game. Home opener, Carrier Dome, and the new wrinkles to the offense we haven't seen yet could be enough. But again, this team has a different mindset and will win these toss up games.
The next two gamesagainst USC at the Meadowlands and Stony Brook in the Carrier Dome are a tale of two games. Can SU beat USC? It's possible, but not likely. Can SU lose to Stony Brook? Again, it's possible, but not likely.
So here's predicting a 2-1 start heading into another huge swing game.
SU travels to Minnesota on September 22nd. It??s another Big 10 game and the third BCS opponent SU will meet in the first four weeks of the season. The Golden Gophers had a tough year at 3-9 in 2011 but remember, they were battling the distractions of Head Coach Jerry Kill's serious heath issues, so it's hard to put much stock in that wins/loss margin. If Syracuse can get this win in addition to the season opener a bowl game seems so much more likely than if it splits the two or of course loses in both.
After the bye week on September 29th, SU gets back into Friday night action hosting Pittsburgh, a team the Orange hasn't beaten since 2004. The Panthers are talented, but there??s just something about the Orange on that Friday night stage, and I have a gut feeling that Syracuse will win this game. The crowd will be lively, and you can bet that the Orange wants to end an 8-game losing streak to Pitt.
That game is followed by a road game against Rutgers and a home game against UConn, two of SU??s chief rivals in recruiting, and the last meeting conceivably against the two Big East foes. That will be a big motivating factor, I believe, and its two teams that while every game is important the Orange wants to stop playing on a high note. Is it possible that SU could start a season at 6-1? Yes. And for the sake of this article, I??m predicting it.
So that would have SU qualified for a bowl and perhaps destined for great things before Halloween.
The next four game stretch, in my opinion, will be the toughest of the year; at South Florida, at Cincinnati, against Big East favorite Louisville and at Missouri. It??s hard to say anything about this and something so far out in the season except?|wow. That??s a ridiculously difficult 4-game stretch. I don??t know if this necessarily happens, and it wouldn??t be for the same reasons as the 2011 losing streak.
Maybe it??s the Robinson Era??s scars on me, maybe it??s fear that my 6-1 prediction is setting the expectations a bit high, but for the sake of your reading pleasure we??ll go with the four game losing streak. Just remember SU went to USF and Cinci in 2010 and beat both teams. It could happen again. But for now, let??s say SU is at 6-5.
Still qualified for a bowl game, Syracuse meets Temple for the first time since 2004. The Owls, led by former Orange assistant Steve Addazio, know the Orange staff very well. Still, I think SU gets back on track in this game and beats Temple to head into bowl season on a high note.
This sends SU to the Beef O??Brady??s Bowl on December 21 in Tampa.
Against C-USA??s #4 team? I don??t know. East Carolina would be fun to see as an old rival of sorts for SU. Admittedly, I don??t know any of C-USA??s favorites this season. Rejoice SU fans, because the bowl destinations become MUCH more appealing in the ACC.
After the BCS it??s ?? Peach, Russell Athletic, Sun, Belk, Music City, Independence, and Military Bowl as opposed to the Russell Athletic, Belk, Pinstripe, Beef O?? Brady??s and Compass Bowls for the Big East.
The only Big East game I??ll miss is the Pinstripe Bowl and here??s hoping for the ACC to align itself with the game.