Evaluating Syracuse after ACC move

Last week, we caught up with Pittsburgh athletic director Steve Pederson to get his take on how he felt Year 1 in the ACC went for the Panthers football team.

Now, it's Syracuse's turn.

The Orange surprised many with their third-place finish in the Atlantic Division and victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl to cap their first season in the ACC at 7-6. First-year coach Scott Shafer deserves plenty of credit for keeping his team together throughout the course of a season that had its share of adversity and challenges. So what does the future hold?

I had a chance to catch up with Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross to get his thoughts on the season that just ended and what it will take to start truly competing with the upper echelon of the league. Here is a little of what he had to say:

How do you feel Year 1 turned out?

DG: We’ve been prepared for this for a long time. We started off with a bang with men’s cross country winning the ACC championship right off the bat. I talk about that because it was a symbolic signal that, "Yup, this is what we thought. We’re ready to compete in this conference." So it gave us some self-esteem early. Going into football season, we’d been battling and we thought we could get better, even though we had a transition. When you lose a coach to the NFL, it’s a nice compliment but there was transition associated with that. And then the quarterback (Ryan Nassib) got drafted by the Giants, and the left tackle (Justin Pugh) got drafted by the Giants. We lose most of the staff to the Buffalo Bills, so there were a lot of questions, and Scott Shafer did a fabulous job. I thought if we could get to a bowl game that would be a real, real positive for this year. To get to the bowl game and beat a good Big Ten team was mission accomplished.

To finish third in our division behind Florida State and Clemson, who we’re looking up to, that’s not a bad start. I was really excited for Scott Shafer. I thought he handled it like a veteran. He’s a coach I think should have been a head coach a long time ago. He comes off with that kind of maturity and he’s only going to get better. He’s got a lot of special qualities, some of which I liken to another coach I had, Pete Carroll. Both are such great communicators. They both set up cultures where the players really trust that head coach. I think that’s going to bode well going into the future. We weren’t just preparing to go into the ACC, though. Now, how do we win championships? Our mindset was to get after it for the future in order to win championships. We got off to a great start.

Does finishing third behind the two best teams in the ACC add confidence to the program?

DG: For us to be able to pull off what we did and handle some adversity along the way, too, speaks volumes. We had a couple losses where the question was, can this team respond? Scott Shafer was so good with these student-athletes. In the locker room, very rarely have I seen the type of communication, win or lose, the way that Coach Shafer did it. Really with the student-athletes buying into it, we always recovered or came back with the win, so that was cool to see that given all the transformational variables that were in play last year.

He feels really good about the class he just signed. Coach Shafer got the kind of players he wanted, and it fits his team, it fits what they do well. We don’t go by a lot of rankings. We go by what’s going to fit this team to make it better than it was before. So, yes, there’s a higher self-esteem around here at the complex, and people are excited about it.

You mentioned tough losses. Two came to Florida State and Clemson. How far away is this program from competing with those two teams?

DG: It’s one step at a time. It’s one of those things where last year you win the bowl game and you feel good about it, you felt you left a couple games on the table you should have won. Now it’s more of, can you take what could have been a 9-4 type of season and turn that into something better than that? Obviously, Florida State is very talented and one of the best teams I’ve ever seen and I was at USC when we won a couple national titles in a row and one season was 13-0. So to see Florida State live twice, they were the real deal. That’s a pretty lofty goal to jump up there and try to jump over that high jump. That’s just a great team. I would never come out and try to say, "Next year we’re going to get better and we’re looking forward to beating Florida State." That’s just part of the process, you have to play your game and game plan and try to get after them the best you can and see what happens. That’s what we’re trying to gear up toward.

I think things tend to regress toward the mean. If you have a team like Florida State and everyone knows the standard of excellence, everyone’s trying to simulate that by using your schemata to emulate that type of high bar, so I think [Shafer is] looking to see some significant improvement. There are a couple games he wishes he had back last year that seemed winnable. Everybody has that. But when you’re talking about the potential and the margin of how much better you can be, that’s part of the discussion.