There are too many questions and not enough answers right now.
Sure, there have been bad games. And games where the offense struggled. But this was a different type of terrible. Against a Cardinals squad whose defense was less than stellar, SU managed just 137 yards (more than a third of those in garbage time), seven first downs and six completions. They only ran 41 plays. There was nothing watchable about this offense. It was probably the worst game, aesthetically, since the 2013 Georgia Tech loss (a 56-0 disaster in its own right).
So Syracuse is now 1-8, with two games to go, and almost certainly staring down the barrel of a 1-10 season. There are numerous caveats there given the reworked schedule, insane number of injuries and the nature of this offseason. Yet, it’s hard to avoid the conversation at this point that something’s very clearly… off for the Orange.
The question now: Is this a bump in the road, or the end of it for Dino Babers?
That language may seem light, but it’s more a way to avoid throwing too much gasoline on a smoldering fire. This season has been dreadful and it’s overdrawn funds on Babers’s goodwill from fans; already wavering following last year’s disappointing 5-7 campaign. We can debate whether or not fans had any right to be calling for his firing after last season’s misstep. But it’s hard to doubt the reasoning now. Syracuse football feels hopeless once more.
Perhaps there’s an assumption that just because many coaches and administrators around the country seem to be viewing this disjointed football season with an asterisk, it means fans are capable of doing the same. And sure, maybe we would be, if this looked like it was building toward something.
With a ton of freshmen on the field, there’s a way to spin this successfully for Syracuse. Injuries have provided an opportunity to develop experienced depth. You want to see what you have in certain players. You’re testing out new wrinkles in the playbook. Even in year five, Dino’s had opportunities to sell what’s next. Instead, we’re left watching something truly awful, and are expected to be excited about it. Obviously, that was never going to work for this fan base — but especially not during the year 2020 has been for most.
We just wanted something to inspire a little faith, even if the team was still losing games. A young team losing shootouts you can sell. This affront to offense? No chance.
What this season’s exposed is a lot that was recently examined in our series on how to fix Syracuse football in the long-term. To avoid having success be temporary — under any coach — the Orange need resources spent in the right places. That’s strength and conditioning (a complete failure this season). That’s assistants. That’s facilities. Despite recent progress in the positive direction, SU simply doesn’t have the infrastructure for lasting success anymore. Unfortunately, with losing seasons like this one, it gets harder to build it.
If that sounds like a task for athletics more than any coach, it is. Yet, Babers IS responsible for what’s happening on the field right now and needs to have real solutions when this dreadful campaign wraps up. Post-game pressers have featured fluffier or more nebulous language. We’re no longer dealing in what’s tangible. Everything is a concept of reality, vs. the actual one we’re forced to witness each week.
Babers made changes last offseason, bringing in new offensive and defensive coordinators. And while he deserves plenty of credit for making the changes, and especially for bringing in Tony White to run the defense, Syracuse is not in a place where we can just give out high grades for effort. So for as much as the White hire is worthy of praise, Sterlin Gilbert’s is worthy of scorn. Like many of you, I’d argue offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has worn out his welcome as well, despite the potential promise of the incoming recruiting class.
These are the decisions that will dictate whether this is a very weird, bad season en route to right-sizing things, or the clear sign that it’s time to move on. For many of you, the latter is the only option. I think there’s a case to be made that this is a perfect storm of events for Babers that most coaches would be knocked down by. But again, that’s dealing in the hypothetical instead of the reality we’re living in.
So what do we do at this point?
To start, we’re not moving on from Babers this offseason given the buyout, plus the buyout of any coach we’re likely trying to hire. That much should be clear. It also shouldn’t give him a free pass on this season. The (increasingly unwatchable) losses are there, and count against his record. The fact that the offense — his specialty — is struggling this much, even more so.
But he’s absolutely on the hot seat in 2021. Despite the fact that he’s clearly a good man and an inspiring person to listen to, these are not things that are translating to results anymore. You can only bank on the promise of success or your past successes for so long. A third losing season in a row next year, and fifth in six years, should be more than enough to make the call to move on.
I hope that isn’t what happens. And not because of any affinity for Babers. More because I just want this team to win more games than they lose. Or at least be watchable if they don’t.
Syracuse football has started over too many times in the last 15 years for us to stomach another reset. Yet like most fan bases, we will if we need to. The onus is on Babers to prove doubters wrong at this point, and show this is just a bump in the road. I think he’s earned that opportunity. Maybe you don’t. We’ll find out who was right by this time next year.