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When Dino Babers was introduced as Syracuse’s head coach in Dec. 2015, he told fans to have “belief without evidence.” He said he would ensure that the Carrier Dome would be packed with fans — even though the 49,250-seat building had a season-average of over 45,000 fans only once since 1999.
He said there would be a “relentless” Syracuse defense paired with a “well-coached” special teams unit. But above all else, Babers said, there would be a no-huddle offense speeding on the Dome’s turf.
Flash forward almost six years. The Orange, led by Babers, are coming off their second one-win season since 1948. Syracuse abandoned it’s up-tempo offense in 2020, ranking 117th out of 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in points per game. Babers has compiled a mediocre record of 24-36 in five seasons at Syracuse. Take away the 10-3 season in 2018 and he has just 14 wins at Syracuse, and only seven against Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
“If you had to pick one program that falls apart this year, it’s probably (Syracuse) or Duke,” an opposing coach recently told Athlon Sports. “Right now it’s a train wreck, at least externally.”
Syracuse fans bought into Babers and his teams. In his first year, students rushed the field after the Orange upset then-No. 17 Virginia Tech. Babers’ postgame speech in the locker room went viral. It was SU’s first win over a ranked team in five seasons. But the Orange lost four of their final five games and finished 4-8.
During his first two years, Babers consistently said his teams take a big leap during the middle of his second year at a school. In the seventh game of 2017, Babers and SU scored one of the biggest upsets in college football history, defeating No. 2 Clemson 27-24. Babers and the Orange locker room again went viral. The program appeared to be on the rise, and a breakthrough seemed imminent.
The breakthrough came in 2018 when Syracuse went 10-3, making an appearance in the AP Top-25 poll for the first time since 2001 and capping the season off with a 16-point win in the Camping World Bowl. Babers received a contract extension through 2024 and is reportedly the highest-paid university employee.
But after going 6-17 over the past two seasons — with a 3-15 Atlantic Coast Conference record — Babers and Syracuse are slipping further and further from that magical year. Regardless of contract status and the potential cost of a buyout, few Power Five college football coaches can lead a team to a 1-10 season and not expect to at least slightly be on the hot seat.
With a soft nonconference schedule, fans back in the Carrier Dome and a transfer quarterback in Garrett Shrader who impressed in his freshman season at Mississippi State, this is Babers’ chance to prove he can field a competitive ACC team at Syracuse. It is his make-or-break year. Fans aren’t happy about going 1-10, and neither are former players.
“That’s what all us Syracuse alums and Syracuse fans would like to see in the fall, is the ‘Cuse being more relevant than they have been the last few years,” former Syracuse running back and assistant coach David Walker said.
Before the 2020 season even started, SU lost two of its veteran running backs, Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard, to opt-outs. After their first win of the season against Georgia Tech, the Orange fell at home against Duke and lost starting quarterback Tommy DeVito to a season-ending leg injury.
The next week, SU lost to Liberty, a team in just its third year of FBS football. It was Liberty’s first win over an ACC opponent. Even after the loss, Babers told SU fans to continue believing — even if the on-field evidence wasn’t there.
“I expect them to have faith. And I expect them to know we’re going to right it,” Babers said.
This season, there won’t be 10 ACC games like last year. Syracuse’s only ranked opponent is Clemson in a Friday night home game. Babers and the Orange open the season with four straight, winnable, nonconference matchups, starting with Ohio on Saturday. The only power conference opponent in that stretch is Rutgers, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2014 and has a 16-53 record over that stretch. Syracuse realistically — and arguably — should be 4-0 heading into October.
After losing DeVito to injury last season, Babers got inconsistent results out of Rex Culpepper and JaCobian Morgan under center. Babers and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert went out and recruited Shrader to Syracuse, where he has been competing for the starting job with DeVito. Shrader’s strengths as a runner with pocket presence could help the Orange’s defense return to the up-tempo pace it had when Eric Dungey ran Babers’ offense from 2016-2018.
By making the move to bring in Shrader, Babers admitted that DeVito may not be the right quarterback for Syracuse’s offense. Babers knows there needs to be energy in the Carrier Dome, which Shrader can provide. But he also has DeVito listed as the week one starter.
Coming off the 2018 season, the SU fanbase was energized. There was a record for new season-ticket sales, the first sellout in the Dome since 1998 against Clemson and Syracuse’s best attendance average since 2002. Orange fans will finally have the opportunity to watch SU football in the newly-renovated Carrier Dome this fall.
But Syracuse fans won’t show up to watch a subpar product. Scott Shafer was fired as head coach after the Dome only brought in an average of 32,102 fans in 2015.
A buyout of Babers’ contract could cost over $17 million. The Carrier Dome renovations were completed for $118 million. How many losses against non-power five teams in the Dome is Director of Athletics John Wildhack willing to watch before pulling the plug on Babers?
The head coach has tried to save himself before. After a 31-point home loss against Boston College two years ago, Babers fired his longtime defensive coordinator Brian Ward. Babers said the decision hurt him “deeply.” After the 2019 season, Babers demoted offensive coordinator and another longtime assistant, Mike Lynch, to running backs coach. The 2020 season saw a new 3-3-5 defense implemented. Then, three more coaches left after the 2020 season.
Babers has shown a willingness to desert his longtime assistants and his style of offense. But Wildhack has never publicly considered leaving Babers.
This offseason, Babers knew there needed to be changes made to his program. He began focusing his attention on the small details, players said. When he made coaching changes two years ago, he knew 2020 was an important year. But after only winning one game in 2020, Babers knows this could be his do-or-die year.
“Attention to the smallest details, just harping on it more,” DeVito said. “He doesn’t just get on the players, he gets on the coaches and the training staff as well … it can’t be the team is doing well, but the training room is slacking off and the weight room is slacking off. Everyone needs to be all in.”
If Babers and Syracuse can’t compete this season and perform better than 2020, it’s hard to imagine coaching staff changes or a potential replacement quarterback will save Babers’ job. The same program that produced Jim Brown and Donovan McNabb is currently closer to Duke and Wake Forest on the football field than it is to Clemson or even Pittsburgh and Boston College.
Every day Babers and SU fans wake up another day further removed from those Gatorade baths and locker room speeches that energized the program from 2016-18. Babers asked for belief without evidence. After five years, Syracuse has seen the evidence — and it hasn’t been good.
Connor Smith is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @csmith17_.