Saturday Road Crystal Ball: Predicting every Syracuse football game for 2022
In 2018, his third season at Syracuse, Dino Babers led the Orange to a 10-3 record that produced a No. 15 national ranking and a Camping World Bowl appearance against West Virginia. It was hailed as the beginning of a return to glory for the program and immediately transformed the energetic young coach into a rising national star.
But the momentum has quickly faded. Syracuse has managed only 11 wins combined in the 3 years since, leaving Babers’ future at the school in serious doubt.
That’s how quickly he’s gone from a hot commodity to the hot seat.
Babers’ hopes for lowering the temperature rest on his ability to build off a 2021 season that saw 3 of the Orange’s 7 losses decided by a field goal or in overtime and by winning at least 6 games to earn bowl eligibility this season. The pieces are there to make a realistic run at accomplishing the goal.
They start with running back Sean Tucker, who took his place among the long line of great Syracuse running backs by leading the ACC in rushing a year ago. The 5-10, 205-pound sophomore used his combination of power and speed to amass 1,496 yards, breaking Joe Morris’ school record that had stood for 42 years.
Returning quarterback Garrett Shrader has also proven to be a dangerous running threat, although his passing needs to improve for the Orange to make a significant move up the Atlantic Division standings.
Defensively, the linebacking corps of Stefon Thompson and Marlowe Wax on the outside and Mikel Jones inside lead the way. The trio ranked 1-2-3 on the team in tackles while combining for 15 sacks and 30 TFLs. The secondary also has playmakers in corners Darian Chestnut and Garrett Williams.
But there are some significant questions to be answered.
How improvement is possible from a passing game that ranked dead last in the ACC? Who will step forward on an untested offensive line and receiving corps? Can the defense find a replacement for top pass rusher Cody Roscoe and his 8.5 sacks? And most importantly, will any of the above matter against a schedule brutal enough to give any coach nightmares.
Let alone one whose job likely depends on his ability to get through it.
Here’s a closer look at the challenge that lies ahead for Babers and the Orange.
Man on fire
Syracuse plays its home games at a stadium formerly named for an air conditioning company. But even that isn’t enough to turn down the heat Babers is feeling heading into his seventh season as coach of the Orange.
How hot is his seat?
Not at all, according to athletic director John Wildhack. But a quick look at Babers’ record tells a different story. To steal a line from Rob Thomas and the great Carlos Santana, it’s probably more like seven inches from the midday sun.
Babers has just 1 winning season since taking over the program. And his team is just 11-24 over the past 3 years.
But as tenuous as his situation might be, Babers does have at least a few things going for him.
After suffering through a 1-10 disaster during the COVID-impacted 2020 season, his team improved by four wins last year. He’s also taken steps to improve the ACC’s worst passing attack by hiring Robert Anae and Jason Beck – a duo that helped develop Brennan Armstrong at Virginia – as his new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Most of all is the reported $10 million buyout that might be a high enough price tag to keep him around through the end of his contract in 2023, even if he doesn’t get the Orange to at least 6 wins and a bowl this year.
Air support needed
There’s a reason Babers called in the cavalry, or in this case, the Air Force, to help improve his offense this season. Anae and Beck were added to the staff specifically to add some balance to an attack that despite the presence of arguably the most electric offensive talent in the ACC, still managed to finish 12th out of 14 teams in scoring last season in conference games.
Tucker led the ACC in rushing with 1,496 yards while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Quarterback Shrader chipped in another 781 yards to help the Orange rank No. 1 in the conference on the ground.
The passing game finished at the exact opposite end of the standings. That’s where Anae and Beck come in. Their task is to make Syracuse a much less one-dimensional team.
“I liked what they were doing over at Virginia,” Babers said. “I looked at the numbers they were putting up. (Anae) was one of those guys that if he ever became available, I really think it would be a good fit because we really do kind of see things the exact same way.
“Having the opportunity to bring Coach Beck along was just icing on the cake and he has done a fabulous job for us. I think he is one of the bright minds in college football and one of the up-and-comers.”
They have their work cut out for them.
Although Shrader proved valuable in the running game, he was never able to find a rhythm throwing the ball after taking over as starter for an even more ineffective Tommy DiVito in Week 4 against Liberty.
The Mississippi State transfer completed just over 50% of his passes and threw for only 9 touchdowns while accounting for less than 100 yards through the air 4 times. Only twice, in a loss to Pittsburgh and a win at Virginia Tech, did he top the 200-yard mark in a game.
Syracuse’s top receiver, Courtney Jackson, had only 37 catches for 389 yards.
Because of the new staff additions and a greater emphasis on the passing game, Shrader is convinced that improvement is on the way.
“It’s not necessarily a concern of if we can get the job done because we know we’re more than capable and competent and we’ve got a lot of receivers that didn’t get a chance to show themselves,” he said. “We have some names that will be big this year and put on a lot of good plays. We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to be explosive this year. I will say that in both aspects of the game.”
One of the big reasons Babers finds himself in the position of having to answer questions about his future at Syracuse is his teams’ inability to win games late in the season. The Orange is only 5-17 in November and 0-1 in December on his watch. In 4 of his 6 seasons as coach, the Orange have gone winless in the final month of the season.
It’s a mark he blames on scheduling and a lack of depth in his program.
“It seems like our schedules are back-ended and that’s OK,” he said. “You are going to end up playing everybody, but when you acquire some injuries or when the transfer portal came up and all of a sudden people were transferring in the middle of the season, that can affect your depth. When you don’t have a lot of depth, that can change the outcome of the games later on.
“We have worked hard on that. We think we have a really stable foundation right now. We think that we have the type of team now that can go deep into November and do some of the things that we think we needed to be doing in some of those other years.”
It won’t be easy, though. This year’s November schedule includes three road games – at Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College, with the only home game coming against Florida State on No. 12.
Week 1: vs. Louisville (L)
Getting off to a fast start is a virtual necessity for Babers and his Orange, given the traditional backloading of their schedule. But it’s not going to happen in an ACC season opener that could dictate the direction of the entire season for both teams. The newly renamed JMA Wireless Dome was the scene of Lamar Jackson’s most memorable Heisman highlight moment when he hurdled a Syracuse defender on his way into the end zone. Current Cardinals QB Malik Cunningham probably won’t do anything that spectacular, but he’ll still be hard for the Orange to stop in leading his team to victory.
Week 2: at UConn (W)
Here’s all you need to know about the Huskies: They were 1-11 last year, with their only win coming against Yale. They lost by 10 to Holy Cross and made Vanderbilt, the undisputed dregs of Power 5 football, look like a legitimate team. Tucker might run for 1,000 yards in this game alone if he stays in the game long enough.
Week 3: vs. Purdue (W)
This is an important matchup for the Orange and the ACC, which is battling to position itself as an equal to the Big Ten – at least on the field if not in generated revenue. It’s also a decent matchup for Syracuse, despite the Boilermakers coming off a 9-4 season that was their best in two decades. Purdue ranked 12th out of 14 teams in its conference defending the run in 2021. Chalk this one up in the upset column.
Week 4: vs. Virginia (W)
The Cavaliers have a new coaching staff. The Orange has a pair of new assistants that came from Virginia and have as detailed a scouting report as anyone on quarterback Armstrong and his offense. And it’s at the Dome. That’s a pretty good combination.
Week 5: vs. Wagner (W)
The Orange celebrate homecoming by blowing out a Seahawks team that went 0-11 last year against a schedule that included Delaware State, Merrimack, Fordham and LIU.
Week 6: Open
Week 7: vs. NC State (L)
Now that they’re off to the start they needed at 4-1, Babers and his team dive head first into the meat of their schedule against a veteran Wolfpack team that has its sights set squarely on the Atlantic Division title. Even though State returns all but one starter from a defense that ranked No. 3 in the ACC against the run, Tucker and Shrader (before sacks) both managed to rush for more than 100 yards against the Pack last year. But the Wolfpack still won easily, 41-7, behind the passing of Devin Leary. Leary, the preseason ACC Player of the Year, is also back. And the Orange still won’t have an answer for him.
Week 8: at Clemson (L)
The schedule goes from bad to worse. There’s no tougher place to play in the ACC than Clemson, especially considering that with a healthy Will Shipley at running back and No. 1 recruit Cade Klubnik waiting in the wings at quarterback, this year’s Tigers don’t appear to have the glaring offensive flaws that helped keep last year’s meeting at the Dome so close. All the elements are there for a long day at Death Valley.
Week 9: vs. Notre Dame (L)
The Irish play under a golden dome every week when they’re at home, but this will be only their second time playing under the dome in Syracuse and the place figures to be rocking. The problem is that Notre Dame’s subway alumni will likely make up a good portion of that crowd. An even bigger problem for the Orange is an elite defensive unit that feeds off one-dimensional offenses like the one Syracuse puts on the field.
Week 10: at Pittsburgh (L)
Who made this schedule, anyway? After playing the two best teams in its own division and a nationally ranked independent, Syracuse must now take on the defending ACC Coastal champion and its; rugged, sack-happy defense. On the road, no less. Good luck.
Week 11: vs. Florida State (L)
The Seminoles are improving and are eminently beatable. But after running the gauntlet they’ve faced over the past four weeks, will the Orange have anything left in the tank, either physically or emotionally, to take care of business? Nope.
Week 12: at Wake Forest (L)
The Orange took the eventual Atlantic Division champions to overtime before losing a heartbreaker at home last season. This one, however, is in Winston-Salem, where the Deacons have won nine straight heading into the season. As long as their star quarterback Sam Hartman is back from the undisclosed medical condition that currently has him sidelined, Wake still has a decided edge on both sides of the ball.
Week 13: at Boston College (L)
The Orange play out the string of another winless November against a much more motivated Eagles team that needs the win to become bowl eligible. Now it’s up to Wildhack to decide what to do with Babers and his staff.
2022 projection: 4-8 (1-7), 7th in ACC Atlantic
No one in the ACC, perhaps with the exception of NC State, is more excited than the Orange about the conference scrapping its divisional format for a more equitable 3-3-5 scheduling model.
The change will do away with their annual date against perennial power Clemson, an opponent they’ve beaten only once since joining the ACC in 2013. Instead, they’ll face each conference team other than permanent partners Boston College, Pittsburgh and Florida State twice on a rotating basis during a 4-year cycle.
The new system won’t go into effect until next year, so it’s anybody’s guess whether Babers will still be around long enough to benefit from it – even though his athletic director has insisted that his job isn’t on the line no matter what the result this season.
If that’s actually the case, it’s good news for the seventh-year coach.
Because while Babers can remove himself from the hot seat by leading Syracuse to at least six wins and the second bowl bid of his tenure, accomplishing the goal is an extreme longshot against the schedule his team will have to face.