Dwight Freeney was traveling this past Saturday afternoon and was unable to watch his alma mater, Syracuse, put its unbeaten record on the line against Maryland. He was one of the lucky ones.
"Maybe I jinxed them," Freeney said to USA TODAY Sports. "That really tests the character of the team and you as an individual. It’s not always going to be green pastures and blue skies. You’re going to have to deal with it and man up and move on."
After the Orange were hyped this offseason as the closest thing to a rival Clemson would find in the ACC, the 63-20 loss was both historic — the margin of defeat was the highest by a ranked team to an unranked team since Oklahoma beat No. 11 Texas A&M 51-6 in 1999 — and, in a way, unsurprising.
Even when omitting the disastrous Greg Robinson era, Syracuse is 58-68 across the past decade; including Robinson, the Orange are 68-105 since the start of the 2005 season. That stretch includes four winning seasons and one finish in the Amway Coaches Poll, in last year's 10-3 mark during coach Dino Babers' third season. Outside of this past spring and summer, Syracuse has spent the past 15 years either under the radar or off the map entirely.
But this season was supposed to be different. And last weekend notwithstanding, it still could play out as expected: Syracuse will host No. 1 Clemson on Saturday night (7:30 ET, ESPN) in front of the first sellout crowd at the Carrier Dome since 1998, looking to notch what would rank among the most meaningful wins in program history. A win would upend the Amway Coaches Poll, change the perception of the defending national champions and justify the Orange's preseason hype.
"Every week is a different week," said Freeney, who will make an appearance before Saturday's game with the Amway Coaches Poll Trophy, awarded in conjunction with American Football Coaches Association to the winner of the College Football Playoff.
"In football in general, you kind of have to hit that reset button. Whether your win or whether you lose. Every time you win, it only counts as one. I don’t care if you beat someone by one point or by 50. It only counts as one. The same thing on the reverse side of the that, if you lose it only counts as one."
A former first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts and one of the top NFL pass rushers of his generation, Freeney spent much of his career avoiding the debates and wagers among former college standouts that typically circle through locker rooms. When teammates would start bragging about their alma maters, "I'd be quiet as a mouse," Freeney said.
"Because I couldn't say anything. I’d have to go back to Jim Brown. ‘Yeah, we’ve got Jim Brown.’ Now that they’re trending, now they’re playing well, now it’s something we can talk about."
It would seem that the matchup with Clemson is coming at the wrong time — as if there's ever a good time to take on a program with two of the past three national championships and four ACC championships in a row. In breaking through under Babers, last year's offense finished 11th nationally in points per game and 19th in yards per game. Through two games, the Orange rank 97th and 80th, respectively, in the same categories.
But more so than any other team in the ACC, Syracuse hangs with Clemson. The Orange pulled off a 27-24 upset at home two years ago. Last year's team had Clemson on the ropes in Death Valley until the backup quarterback, Chase Brice, replaced an injured Trevor Lawrence and rallied the Tigers to a 27-23 win.
Besides, Freeney said, the timing of the Clemson game "is the best thing in the world."
"It couldn’t have happened better from one standpoint: If you’re going to lose a game you didn’t think you were going to lose, that means you want to win the next one, right? But when you’re playing an opponent like Clemson, yes, it only counts as one, but obviously they can erase that loss by beating the No. 1 team in the country."
From that perspective, Clemson presents Syracuse with an opportunity no other opponent in the ACC would provide.
"It’s going to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping," said Freeney. "They’re going to be ready to go. They want to make up for that embarrassing loss to Maryland. You couldn’t ask for a better situation."