An "anti-cupcake school"

When Syracuse Post-Standard writer Donnie Webb told Purple Reign that Syracuse is an "anti-cupcake school," it sent PR rummaging through schedules of years past. Sure, this season Syracuse has quite the gauntlet; NU will mark the third 2008 bowl team that the Orange has played already. But is there a years-long anti-cupcake trend? Inside, a look back at SU's past non-con slates.

In a recent email exchange with Purple Reign, Syracuse Post-Standard writer Donnie Webb wrote of Syracuse, "This is the anti-cupcake school when it comes to non-conference games."

Well, that's certainly true this season. Aside from a Week 4 visit from the Maine Black Bears, Syracuse's non-con slate could be mistaken for a late-fall chunk of a Big Ten schedule. And a tough one, at that.

The Orange opened with Minnesota, then played at Penn State. And this week, of course, SU is hosting Northwestern. If a Big Ten outfit had that trifecta in three consecutive weeks, then it would be seen as a meaty part of the conference grind.

But if a non-Big Ten team had that trio of opponents back-to-back-to-back, then, well, that would be seen as a brutal way to start the season.

That's three bowl teams from 2008 – including a BCS appearance from PSU. Two of those teams returned their starting quarterbacks, and the one that didn't, NU, has a senior QB who started some as a freshman back in 2006. Plus, Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern are all undefeated on the season.*

* You could say part of the reason all three are undefeated is because the Gophers and Nittany Lions got to play Syracuse. You could say that. But even if that's your stance, there is nonetheless a big fat 0 in the loss column of these three teams. Even if the combined 6-0 mark includes a 2-0 mark against the Orange, undefeated is undefeated.

But when Webb made his "anti-cupcake" statement, was he just talking about this season? Or is this a pattern for Syracuse? It certainly applies to '09, but to find out if this is a habit for SU, Purple Reign took a trip to the archives. (OK, I spent some time on the Internet, but archives sounded better.)

Turns out, this is nothing unusual at all for the Orange. Indeed, they cut cupcakes from the diet years ago.

Let's start back in 2001. That year Syracuse was seemingly trying to become and honorary member of the SEC – like this year with the Big Ten – by playing Tennessee and Auburn. Tennessee won a national title three years earlier, and Auburn was three years away from an undefeated season of its own. Throw in a game against Georgia Tech, and '01 certainly fits the anti-cupcake bill.

The next year, 2002, SU took an everything-to-lose trip to Provo, Utah, to open the season against BYU. When a Big East team like Syracuse plays an unranked team from the WAC – which is where BYU was then, before joining the Mountain West – a win more or less expected, and a loss is more or less a black eye. And, well, the Orange got pasted in that one, 42-21. Other '02 contests included a game against North Carolina and the conclusion of the Auburn home-and-home, a 37-34 home loss.

2003 offered a big of a reprieve – no non-conference games against ranked teams. But still, the opponents weren't total patsies: North Carolina, Louisville, Central Florida and Toledo.

Things got nuts again in 2004. The schedule opened at No. 24 Purdue – a 51-0 loss – and later brought No. 8 Florida State into the Carrier Dome back when Florida State was still, you know, Florida State. FSU was coming off back-to-back BCS appearances, and in 2004, there was nary a team in the country SU could have played that had a better chance of being really good than the Noles.

In 2005, the Orange had to make the obligatory home-and-home trip to Tallahassee, a game that resulted in a 24-point win for No. 6 FSU. The Orange also inked a deal with Notre Dame (another 24-point loss) and Virginia. Both FSU and Notre Dame played in BCS bowls that season.

No Top 10 opponents in 2006, but still no cakewalk. There was a trip to Wake Forest, as well as games against Iowa and Illinois. Even the non-BCS conference opponents weren't pushovers – Wyoming and Miami (OH).

The home-and-homes with Illinois and Iowa finished up in 2007, both with losses. There was also a visit from Washington (loss) and a trip to Oxford, Ohio, to play the Red Hawks (loss). Surely the Orange program was already in the process of tanking, but having not a single gimme on the schedule is one of the recipes for a 2-10 season.

(If you are keeping track at home, the three seasons from 2005-07 featured: A 5-9 record out of conference and a 7-28 overall record. The wheels were coming off, and playing out of conference games like this did nothing to make for a smoother ride. Crazy stat: Between Illinois, Florida State and Notre Dame, Syraucse played three BCS-bowl teams in the non-con in three seasons. Jeez.)

More tough games in 2008 – a visit from Penn State, a trip to Notre Dame, as well as losses to Northwestern and (gulp) Akron. The one cupcake on the schedule, Akron, actually beat SU, and one of the this-could-get-ugly games, against Notre Dame, resulted in an improbable victory. Go figure.

And this, of course, brings us to this season. The Orange had to go to Happy Valley to round out the PSU series, and that is sandwiched between visits from Minnesota and Northwestern, two teams that in 2008 went a combined 17-9.

So Webb was most certainly right: This is a hardcore, unequivocal, won't-even-think-about-Towson type of program. Not that the strategy has really worked. The team hasn't had a winning season in eons and the coach was fired last year. Plus, all of these high-profile games were so helpful in luring recruits that the starting quarterback is a fifth-year senior who had never played college football before this season.

At the same time, it is admirable, right? Think about it. Pretty much every week is a big game. Again, the philosophy has failed on any number of criteria – wins, recruits, etc. But Florida State, Auburn and Notre Dame are all found in the Who's Who of College Football Powers. And teams like North Carolina, Illinois and, yes, Northwestern can be found in the section about sleepers who have the propensity to put together good teams and stellar seasons.

Purple Reign isn't making a value judgment about Syracuse's schedule(s). But when Northwestern visits Syracuse this weekend, squaring off against a bowl team will be nothing unusual for the Orange. So don't expect them to flinch.

Then again, for a team that has won as little as Syracuse has recently, a loss wouldn't be anything unusual either.

To reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


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