It's just another small, undistinguished number on the weekly odds sheet, unless you've followed Syracuse football for the last five years. In that case, it's one of those moments when the record scratches and the entire party comes to an abrupt halt: The Orange are favored to win a Big East game.
So, yeah, they're only –1, or –1½ at most, depending on the service. And it's over Pittsburgh, notable thus far for a 2-3 start with wins over New Hampshire and Florida International, a string of embarrassing arrests and leading the nation in net punting. But six weeks ago, the Panthers were considered a top-20 team and the runaway favorite to win the Big East, where Syracuse was picked to finish in or very near the cellar for the sixth year in a row. And it's the first time 'Cuse has been anything better than a six-point underdog in a conference game since a 2006 visit from UConn.
That qualifies as big expectations for a team whose first three wins this year came over a still-winless MAC-rifice, Akron, and FCS/I-AA patsies Maine and Colgate. (Not to mention the three-touchdown loss at Washington.) But after last week's 13-9 upset at South Florida, even the most worn, jaded abusees of the darkest era in Syracuse history are beginning to see the light:
Think about this. The Orange have four wins. In 2005, they did not reach that mark. In 2006, it took them eleven games to get there. In 2007, they did not reach that. In 2008, they did not reach it either. In 2009, it took them eleven games again.
In 2010, it took them five games to get there.
The Syracuse-USF series was a perfect metaphor for the GRE [Greg Robinson Era]. We started playing in 2005, when Robinson took over. He never beat them in his four years. This start-up program that didn't even exist when Syracuse won a national title or when Dick MacPherson was leading the Orange to Sugar Bowls and 10-win seasons, dominated us in a way that just didn't seem logical. Last season, Doug Marrone hadn't yet removed the stench of Robinson and the Orange lost still. Finally, now with the program actually moving in the right direction, they defeated the Bulls and ended a streak that represented everything terrible about the Greg Robinson Era. ...
Maybe "curse" is the wrong word. The Orange weren't cursed by Greg Robinson. But he did leave behind an impending sense of dread. That things will always go wrong. That is over now.
What you are reading there is actual, unironic pride in Syracuse football from top 'Cuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, whose most optimistic musings prior to this season included a weekly chronicling of the team's quixotic quest for the International Bowl, which no longer exists. Now, TNIAAM claims, "There isn't a team in the Big East that scares us" while his comrades result in actual positive communication about the season.
And, yeah, okay: The defense that finished last or next-to-last in the conference in total and scoring D all four years under Robinson is currently ranked in the top 15 nationally in both categories, and the USF ambush may be the first non-fluky Big East win since they fired Paul Pasqualoni. Down 9-6 in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the sad-sack offense marched the ball 98 yards for what turned out to be the winning touchdown in Tampa. An independent party just cast the first Syracuse vote ever recorded in the BlogPoll. Compared to the last five years, that does sound like the beginnings of the great leap forward in Doug Marrone's second year that Robinson's teams never even hinted at.
It could also be that the Orange have fattened their early record on the saddest trio of opponents on any "Big Six" conference schedule and a USF outfit hitting a swoon in the transition to new coach Skip Holtz. Saturday, against a presumed conference frontrunner in front of a home crowd with a semblance of hope for the first time since anyone on the current roster arrived on campus, will go a long way to telling the difference.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.