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Was Syracuse football’s 2020 recruiting a missed opportunity? We’ll see soon enough

For as much as we believe in the cake being baked, we might’ve missed a chance to make it even better.

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

We’ll start out with the following: If you’re new here, hello! I’m not one to hammer Syracuse Orange football coach Dino Babers with a ton of criticism, and sometimes this community even gets annoyed at me for that. It’s not that I’ve been purposefully going easy on him since he arrived back in December of 2015. It’s that I do feel he’s a great coach, and think the rebuild job he inherited was rather difficult. So that affords one some ramp, especially when you’re seeing improvement.

In the past, we’ve talked about how that optimistic (from me?!) view on things can color how I evaluate the job being done. That’s not an excuse as much as it is a fact, and while I can acknowledge as much, it’s also disingenuous to apologize for it.

Now that we got that out of the way, though: we need to talk about this 2020 recruiting class.

I don’t doubt the abilities of this group as a whole, or individually. And this isn’t a knock on the players, who I’m happy to welcome into the Orange family, just like the rest of you are. Still, you can’t help but be at least a little disappointed when you notice that nothing’s really changed from one year to the next in terms of recruiting rankings. And that’s where the problem starts.

Babers and his staff did their due diligence with this class, for certain. At one point, they’d offered the eighth-most scholarships of any FBS program, and they tacked on another 26 offers from there. Many of those offers went out to blue-chip prospects, but... they didn’t connect on any this time around. That’s at least slightly worrying for this staff, which has managed to sign at least one top-400ish player every year since 2017.

Of course, blue-chippers aren’t the only way you can win football games, as Syracuse itself can attest to. In 2018, a team almost entirely of three-star level talent won 10 games and finished the season in the top 15. That team was developed as much as it was recruited for a specific system on both sides of the ball. A lack of major injuries and a down ACC also played a role, as did a consistently good offensive line to help power SU to its best season in decades.

That was under Babers, as you know. And the idea is that you’re typically able to cash in on a season like that on the recruiting trail... provided you show it’s no fluke. At 5-7 this year, SU didn’t necessarily dispel the fluke narrative. But rallying to win two of three at the end at least shows there’s a glimmer of the same success in there (or it should have).

Babers and his staff have been able to coach up a lot of kids over the course of four seasons now, so I’m not one to doubt the chances they’ll be able to do it again here with the recruiting class of 2020. Whether they were the remaining Shafer holdovers or Dino’s own recruits, Syracuse’s players are clearly better now than they were five years ago — in large part due to our coaches both going out and getting talent, and/or helping those players get the most out of their abilities.

The question or concern I have is the ability to coach up EVERYONE that you just brought in. There will inevitably be “diamonds in the rough,” here. And some of these players are three-stars that will manage to outplay their arbitrary star ranking. Still, what’s the success rate on that? And how quickly does the 10-3 season wind up in the rearview mirror for incoming prospects? One could argue the shine 2018 brought the program has already worn off. That’s not going to make it any easier to bring in blue-chip players now that you’re no longer selling the future — but the present, instead.

I believe in Babers’s abilities to coach and motivate and upgrade the talent level from what he inherited. It’s all been done, and the peak of that result was a 2018 season I’ll never forget as a fan or as someone covering the team. What we’re looking for now, though, is how this regime handles the next step. Now that there are reasons to doubt (not that I’m a believer in them), what does this staff do to recover the spark that got players, fans and media buying in to begin with?

For starters, making changes at both coordinator positions seems to acknowledge room for improvement, and actively focus on getting in this coming season. Sterlin Gilbert and Dino Babers have experienced success together. If nothing else, Tony White brings in a defensive scheme that’s a perfect match for our personnel, plus his own recruiting success (new cornerbacks coach Chip West should help there too). These are changes that aim to make sure the struggles of 2019 and the resulting effect on 2020’s recruiting don’t repeat themselves.

With luck, this article seems foolish in hindsight. Numerous 2020 recruits could outplay their rankings, and the returning players perform well enough to look like something closer to the 2018 squad than what we saw in 2019. That result would be fantastic. But it also needs to translate into greater recruiting success at some point. I’m not calling for top-40 classes, even. Something in the 45-to-50 range is fine by me. SU just needs to show a little progress.

Dino understands this and made moves to address it. Now let’s see if the results come with that.