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Syracuse seniors: Finishing a chapter, continuing the story

While it might have the feel of a rapid rise to relevancy, the Syracuse seniors have been building toward these moments from the end of year one.

North Carolina State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Roughly 30,000 people watched the debut of the 2015 Syracuse Orange, a 47-0 whooping of Rhode Island.

Eighty-five days later, about 30,000 fans again gathered in the Dome to watch the final game of the slog that was the 2015 season. The result of that contest was a surprising 20-17 victory over Boston College. An unexpected outcome because SU finished the campaign 4-8 after starting out 3-0, and because it was announced prior to the finale that head coach Scott Shafer wouldn’t be back the following season.

At the time, the football program was suffering from a nearly fatal combination of poor play, questionable-to-abysmal coaching and fan ambivalence. Despite a couple of saintly achievements under Doug Marrone (bowl victories in 2010 and 2012), Syracuse was seemingly stuck flat-lining in perpetuity. Fans, meanwhile, were past feeling anger, many of them just stopped caring.

Boston College v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

So now that we are some 1,077 days removed from that dreary November win over BC, where the scoreboard showed the Orange as winners yet the fans clearly knew better, it’s hard to reconcile just how Syracuse football (7-2, 4-2) pulled itself out of the grave and into the College Football Playoff top-13. In less than three full seasons no less. We haven’t seen record crowds return, yet we are seeing national pundits and talking heads mention the Orange when talking about hot teams or when referencing potential hiccups for Notre Dame. ESPN’s Gameday could be front and center in the Bronx next week to help hype up No. 13 vs. No. 3. In the span of the last two weeks, SU vaulted 31 spots in the Associated Press poll.

Obviously for a turn around of this magnitude, there are many factors in play. The first of which has to be the coach, Dino Babers. As has been well documented, Babers came to Syracuse with the goal of making football fun again. His fast-paced offense was going to be finally have Syracuse take advantage of its controlled-climate confines. Further, Babers not only knows his football, but he knows how to command attention and craft a story. In short order, he’s become a winner and a character, both of which can only help advance SU’s cause to take some of the sport’s spotlight.

If anyone other than Dino Babers had signed on to take the lead of the program, Syracuse might still be trying to escape the college football cemetery.

But for as captivating as Babers’ teams are to watch, he isn’t leading a top-13 outfit right now if there weren’t talented players on the field. That then puts a big part of the focus on the Syracuse seniors, a group about to play in its last Dome game this Friday against Louisville.

Syracuse v Wake Forest Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

It’s kind of funny how quickly Syracuse went from doormat to a fixture on ESPN’s ticker. But if you get the chance to ask quarterback Eric Dungey, or running back Dontae Strickland, or wideout Jamal Custis, or defensive tackle Chris Slayton, or any of the others about their “meteoric rise,” well, they might just laugh. For them, this certainly hasn’t been brought on overnight. The season to this point, and all that it can still offer, has been something they’ve been waiting and working for since they set foot on campus.

The players who were fresh faces on the ‘15 roster (and for some the ‘14 roster) have since endured losing seasons. They’ve dealt with one coach’s being fired and another coach’s being hired. They’ve seen the empty stands. They knew how big the hole was they were in.

The 11 in the class, Shafer recruits, not only stayed on board with Captain Babers at the helm, they’ve navigated the Orange into uncharted waters. There’s not a better example of that than Dungey, a superstar in his own right who has never been healthy enough to play more than one November game in a season until now. A sentence that shouldn’t mean that much, but carries a ton of weight as SU tries to close out what could be one of the most special runs in decades. It almost seems like destiny that Dungey had to wait to the end to lead the Orange into a different stratosphere, if only for a few moments.

The QB has been named a season captain and is Syracuse’s all-time leader in total yardage, besting numbers put up by the Donovan McNabb. He one of the few who has his jersey hanging above Ernie Davis Legends Field. Not only that, much like another legend with a high-above jersey, Joe Morris, Dungey is the owner or co-owner of multiple school records (16).

He’s been injured and defeated and briefly benched. Now, the signal caller from Oregon leads the No. 13 team in the country and has become supremely a part of Syracuse’s story.

Dungey’s a talent most coach’s don’t have access to when taking over a floundering team. In that regard, it couldn’t have worked out more perfectly for Babers. For long-suffering Orange fans, too.

Wake Forest v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

But this isn’t just about the coach and the QB. In no way would it be possible for just those two to have Syracuse make this leap.

There are players like Strickland, a running back who hasn’t truly broken out but has still been reliable (his six rushing TDs in ‘18 are two more than his previous season-high). What about Custis? He’s putting up numbers (40 catches for 734 yards) while becoming a consistent down-field threat. That’s all with the pressure of playing the position record-breakers Amba Etta Tawo and Steve Ishmael played before him.

The offense also has seniors in tight end Ravian Pierce (a transfer from a junior college), and linemen Cody Conway and Aaron Roberts (Koda Martin is a grad-transfer playing in his one and only year for Syracuse). The thought of losing that many significant players come next year is likely a scary one for fans. It’s not just the talent, which boasts one of the highest-scoring offenses in program history, it’s about losing the resiliency of that group, a tangible asset that’s tough to quantify.

Much the same can be written for the members of the other side of the ball, too.

Florida State v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

They might not be household names nationwide, but they’re known in Orange Nation. The likes of Slayton, linebacker Kielan Whitner, safety Antwan Cordy (and his must-read story) and linebacker Ryan Guthrie (a juco transfer and burgeoning star) have been instrumental at different points in their careers and throughout this year.

Slayton, who red-shirted in ‘14, was named team captain with Dungey and punter Sterling Hofrichter. A year ago, Babers told anyone who would listen that the nearly 300-pound defensive lineman would be in the NFL and wreaking havoc some day soon. He’s been as consistent as it gets for Brian Ward’s defensive crew.

Ward and company have certainly found their share of criticism levied at them. Still though, the defense has bent but not completely broken. It has actually stepped up during some of the program’s most important, culture-changing games over the last two decades: Virginia Tech (‘16), Clemson (‘17) and, although it turned out to be a defeat, the defense deserves a ton of credit for the near-miss at Clemson this season.

Syracuse v Clemson Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Through nine games, Syracuse’s defense has been a liability but not an anchor around its neck. In other words, it’s done just enough to get and keep the Orange in the fan’s lexicon.

Really, all the way around, there’s no question that both the offense and the defense (and the youthful special teams) deserve a tremendous amount recognition. Babers brought in his style, something new that has obviously worked. He’s also incorporated plenty of his own recruits into the fold. But it’s those seniors who have helped bring Babers’ big plans to life.

There’s something exceptional going on. It’s easy to see, what with the rankings and the bowl projections. What might be difficult to comprehend is that none of it happened quickly. It was started in a nearly empty Dome three years back. It started in the turmoil of 2015 and 2014. All of which is clearly embedded into the DNA of Syracuse football, 2018.