Then and Now - football - part 1 |

Then and Now - football - part 1


Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
Each year I write up an extensive pre-season preview of SU football and then basketball and at the end of each season I do a “then and now” comparison of what I wrote then, (in italics), and my summary of what actually happened and where we are now. My SU football preview was written last August. It is now December. I’ll post this in sections, one a day.

We have the worst record in ACC football since we joined it. We won a minor bowl game the first season, then had three losing records in a row, then had an amazingly good and nearly historically great season followed by a very disappointing follow up and a total disaster. College football fans, journalists and, most importantly, recruits, look at us as bottom-feeders. One pre-season rag described our football program as a “mess”. There are reports, not locally but nationally, that Dino Babers is “on the hot seat”. These things can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Why would recruits want to come here if we are known for having lousy teams and if the coaching staff may be on their way out? It’s not too late to turn things around and convince people that 2018 is the kind of program we can be but it’s getting late. Another losing season and the situation will no longer be retrievable. Somebody said that if we could jump from 1-10 to, say 4-8, that would be a noticeable improvement. It would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t be noticed. We all love and respect Dino Babers but he’s not going to survive 5 losing seasons in a 6-year tenure. He might not be fired immediately but it will be inevitable because he won’t be able to recruit well enough to get out of this. We need a winning season and a bowl game. If we get in at 6-6, we’d better win it. Anything less and a program that has done too much starting over again in recent years will be doing it once again.

Well, we didn’t get to 6-6 but we did get to 5-4, which turned into 5-7. Dino is still here, with either 2 or 3 seasons left on his contract, which may be the reason he’s still here. By keeping him another year, SU reduces the buy-out. And maybe John Wildhack agrees that there’s been too much starting over and is reluctant to pull the trigger. The impact of that 2018 season gets less and less. Our situation hasn’t improved a bit since August. No, we didn’t go 1-10 again but we didn’t really turn things around. We still have the worst record in the ACC since we joined it: 22-52, four games behind Boston College.

I think we have a team that could have the kind of season we need. That’s not a prediction. I would have said the same of the 2019 and 2020 teams before the season and all the things that went wrong. But as I look at the roster I do think that we have enough talented players in each sector of the team to be good if things go well. And I think this team will have several advantages over last year’s team:

- The first is that we simply aren’t a 1-10 program. We might be a 5-7 program as in 2019. We are very unlikely to go 10-3 as in 2018. But we aren’t going 1-10 again, It’s called “regression to the mean” or in this case maybe accession to the mean. Also, the players and coaches have to have been disgusted with what happened last year. They will be motivated to prove that that was a fluke and want to go on a revenge tour against the teams that beat us. It will take more than a desire to do that to make it happen but that desire will be a factor.

We regressed to the mean and sat there. The players seemed motivated through most of the season but beat only two of the teams that beat them last year: Liberty and Boston College. We shed players to the transfer portal all season, especially after we changed our offense. At the moment I believe we are tied for having the most players in the portal, giving the impression of a sinking ship.

- The second is depth, always a problem for a non-powerhouse program in a power conference. The NCAA granted everyone an extra year of eligibility due to Covid and we have several players who took advantage of it in key positions. And the silver lining to a wave of injuries such as we had last year is that we will have a lot of players who have seen game action the next year: the injured players, now healthy and the guys who played in their place. This will allow us to alternate players better and avoid fatigue and injuries and to better replace those who get injured this year. Other teams will have increased depth, too but the important jump is from inadequate depth to adequate depth and we will make that jump this year.

The increased depth was offset by the defections and we went 0 for November once again, losing the last three games by a total of 79 points, although those teams were probably 3 of the 4 best teams on our schedule.

- The third is new coordinators. Both our offense and defense have had serious conceptual problems. The 2019 defense had three future NFL draft picks in its secondary and yet often seemed confused, especially when Boston College scored 5 times in 9 second quarter plays, four of them of 50 yards or more. Babers brought in Tony White last year to install an aggressive 3-3-5 scheme that shifted the emphasis away from the defensive line, an area where a school like Syracuse has trouble recruiting in depth, to the backfield, where we’ve had more success. This year our offensive coordinator will be Sterlin Gilbert, who helped Dino create enormously productive offenses at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. I’m hoping he’ll provide us with something more versatile than we’ve been seeing and bring back the “Orange is the new fast” tempo that was advertised when Dino came here. He’s also brought in a new offensive line coach in Mike Schmidt, who has a reputation for producing strong running attacks, which we certainly need – and have the raw material to create.

I was under the impression when I wrote this that Gilbert had just been brought in. in fact he was our OC in 2020. He’s seen plenty of glory with Dino at Eastern Illinois and Bowling green and the hope was he could give us offenses like Dino had then. Instead, we switched over to a running dominant format that looked like something out of the Schwartzwalder Era. Our leading receiver was Courtney Jackson with 37 catches. Our second leading receiver was Sean Tucker with 20. Garrett Shrader and Sean Tucker ran for a combined 2,227 yards but teams stacked the box against us down the stretch. We got 5 offensive touchdowns in the last four games.

White’s defense was the best we’d seen since Scott Shafer was our DC. But the loss of the three NFL guys from last year and some injuries in the secondary made us vulnerable to the pass. Of our first nine opponents only Liberty and Wake Forest had really good passing games. We beat Liberty thanks so some great defensive plays at the end of the game. But Wake scored 40 on us, winning in overtime. An 0-4 Florida State team beat us with 33 points and a miracle TD pass allowed us to beat a struggling Virginia Tech team 41-36. Then we got pounded with 41, 41, and 31 points in the last three games of the season, all one-sided losses. After having 30, 25 and 24 takeovers in the previous three seasons, we only had 7 this year. If we could have had the 24 takeovers the 1-10 team of the year before had, we’d be preparing for a bowl right now.

- Then there’s the return of the non-conference schedule, which was obliterated last year, save for one game of our choice, for which we made the wrong choice. Liberty proved to be a top 25 team, as good as anyone we played in the ACC save Clemson and Notre Dame and they whipped us in our own place. …in the ACC Atlantic, which has had multiple national champions and numerous bowl teams, we didn’t need to add to the meat grinder so we softened up the non-conference schedule to give us a chance at a rolling start. It’s designed for 4-0 to be possible and 3-1 a reasonable goal.

That worked. We did go 3-1 in the non-conference schedule, which was helpful when we went 2-6 in conference games.

- Then there are the fans. There weren’t any last year. The games were played in what must have been an atmosphere resembling practice. Good plays went un-rewarded with the enthusiasm a crowd can bring. And when the team needed bucking up, no one was there to do it. The fans will be back this year. Syracuse fans have never been known for coming out in great numbers or being consistently loud. They tend to be consumers, who examine a product and decide whether they like it or not before they buy it rather than investors who put their enthusiasm into something in hopes that it will pay dividends. “Get good and I’ll come and root for you”. It doesn’t work that way. The consistently successful programs have fan bases that are there win or lose, regardless of who they are playing or who is coaching and who take an active park in the game by cheering for the team. We don’t. We’ve had the program we’ve deserved over the years.

In an arena that could hold 49,057, our home attendance was: 31,941 for Rutgers, 30,158 for Albany, 29,942 for Liberty, 38,554 for Wake Forest, 36,670 for Clemson, 32,022 for Boston College and 27,939 for Pittsburgh. That’s an average of 32,461 per game, 66.2% capacity. And those are the official numbers. Most of the time, the place didn’t look half full. Covid was surely a factor. The quality of the team was a factor. The ACC, especially Clemson being down was a factor. But no team with that sort of attendance is going to be consistently successful at this level.

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