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Syracuse football: What we tell ourselves when faced with tough questions

This season didn’t go as planned, and the worst part is, it’s not even over yet.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Of all of the questions I asked myself coming into the 2019 Syracuse Orange football season, one of the only ones that was never asked was “what if we don’t make a bowl game?”

Even in the (much-derided at the time) “how Syracuse will finish 5-7” piece, I spelled out a hypothetical hellworld I never actually bought into. For the first time in a long time, it seemed like Orange fans — self included — could breathe easy knowing that the worst-case was our old best-case. Clearly, we all fooled ourselves, to varying degrees.

Certainly many of you have similar thought processes at this point, and that’s what makes the 2019 football season such a difficult one for this particular fan base. Maybe we shouldn’t have bought into the best case as the only case. Maybe we should’ve accounted for Eric Dungey’s departure a bit more. Maybe we should’ve considered the worst case as a distinct possibility when thinking how familiar we are with it, in hindsight.

On the one hand, this year’s team has been an unmitigated disaster. The defense — thought to be the strength coming in — has been run off the field numerous times, to the point where Dino Babers had to fire long-time coordinator Brian Ward. Meanwhile the offense, long Babers’s calling card, has looked disjointed and ineffective for stretches. Mistakes have filled games repeatedly and the talent gap looks larger than it should in year four of a coaching regime.

Yet on the other, we can explain the offensive issues with the line troubles and a first-time starting QB. And the defense could use some linebackers. Despite all of the lopsided results and aggravating afternoons for everyone here, there’s an easy case to be made that Syracuse’s failure to execute lost them three specific games (NC State, Pitt, Louisville) just as much as those opponents defeated the Orange.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I bring up the final bit not to excuse Babers or this team’s lack of success. But to point out that all four- or five-win seasons aren’t created equal and it’s not too far fetched to say this could instead be a strange and frustrating 6-5 or 7-4 campaign. Last year, Syracuse pretty much caught every break. This year, they’ve largely caught none. There’s a middle ground which most teams inhabit. For some reason, the Orange rarely sit in that large patch of land.

Even if we were at that best-case, it would still be worth questioning aspects of the job Dino Babers has done this year, to be honest. In-game decision-making has been maddening at times (see the timeout situation at the end of the first half for just one example), and the penalties — while cleaned up to some extent the last two weeks — have been a persistent problem that even pre-dates his tenure. There’s more, and it’s valid to bring up the fact that this will be the third losing season for Dino in four tries at SU. But the magnifying glass is also on these elements far more because of the fact that we’re in a rough stretch right now.

This is not uncommon in any aspect of life. If your job’s not going well, you amplify what’s problematic to convince yourself it’s time to leave. Same with a relationship, home, city, car, etc. Some people can look on the bright side, certainly. But I’d venture to guess most of us (self included) are not those people. That’s fine. There’s also a balance.

Because as much as those reactions to negative factors are natural, you obviously don’t go looking for the exits EVERY time things go bad in an aspect of your life — or at least, I’d hope not. Otherwise, it’s a pretty miserable existence, constantly focusing your energy on what’s wrong instead of what’s fine.

There are times when the wrong does outweigh the rest, and at that point, make the change. For some, facing tough questions about the job Babers has done now, they’re telling themselves it’s hopeless and frustrating and worth hitting reset (again). For others, the tough questions are letting us pave over the bad a bit too much. When you want a relationship (or in this case, a coach) to work, you’ll grasp at reasons to make it work. When you want it to end, you’ll have a list ready to go of everything that’s wrong while walking out the door.

Key in this is the question of timing. A relationship of six weeks shouldn’t be under a microscope, but three or four years? Certainly. There’s also the idea that after three or four years, you’re pretty comfortable with each other, so you’ll paint over those flaws as long as your overall outlook on the relationship and its effect on you is positive. With Dino, we’re sort of at the crossroads between short-term relationship and long-term commitment (mind you, we did just extend him last offseason).

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Whichever of the two schools of thought you’re taking on Dino right now, just know that a) nothing’s changing this offseason unless he leaves of his own accord, and b) it might be worth trying on the other point of view for a bit, to see if your points hold up. Your mind may not change, but at least you’re getting a better idea for the landscape of ideas around Babers and the job he’s done.

This will be a long offseason, and we’ll talk about what’s next for Dino and this fan base plenty in the coming months. After an offseason that served as a bit of a victory lap, we now see what happens when Babers (for the first time as a head coach) truly has some heat on him to achieve a certain result. If nothing else, I’m at least willing to give him a shot to see how he responds to the situation.