When you look at the Syracuse Orange football team and see a 3-3 record with no additional context, it’s easy to shrug. This team won a single game last season, had a few tough opponents on the early schedule and doesn’t have a ton of talent on the roster. Winning half of your games through six contests sounds about right.
And yet... those of us watching the ups and downs of each game thus far know there’s far more to it all. While not necessarily that “great” of a team, this Syracuse squad could pretty easily be 5-1 or 6-0. Or 2-4, too, if we’re being honest. So while 3-3 splits the difference to an extent, it also highlights the biggest problem for Syracuse right now — and for much of the last couple seasons:
Under Dino Babers, Syracuse has almost exclusively been about what should or could be, and not what is, save the 2018 campaign.
Now, teams fall short all the time. THIS team fell short all the time even before Dino arrived on campus. So the near-misses don’t just sit at his feet. It’s part of the deal with being an Orange fan in pretty much every sport but men’s lacrosse. But this particular loss highlights something that’s been a recurring theme for Babers: Mismanaging games and putting Syracuse in position to suffer these sort of last-second losses.
Against Wake Forest on Saturday, he accepted a penalty that gave Wake an opportunity to score a touchdown — points that if they hadn’t happened would’ve meant a Syracuse win. SU opted for a field goal instead of going for it on fourth and short. There were questionable decisions around timeouts and time management at the end of the first half. He nearly tried to go for a two-point conversion to win the game despite basically needing to run (something Wake knew), and was only bailed out by an inexplicable delay of game that just forced a longer Andre Szmyt extra point.
Of course, we’ve seen all of this before, as puzzling decisions repeat themselves over and over. Whether it’s having no discernible gameplan for the first quarter vs. FSU, or much of the second half vs. Rutgers, or mismanaging the clock in what would’ve been an amazing upset vs. Clemson in 2018... I could go on, of course. But you get the point.
While not the only issue for this program right now, one of the biggest ones is how coaching decisions are regularly poor. And even when they’re not as obvious as some of the things we saw today or in aforementioned games, the clock mismanagement stuff is seemingly always there as well.
So now we sit at a crossroads, in terms of the program overall, the season and Babers’s tenure at Syracuse. Do you give credit for getting this team to a point where they could be 6-0, or ding Dino for how they’re not and how they could be 2-4? Does this team have enough in the tank to close strong and make a bowl after crushing defeats? The positive view says solid efforts vs. Florida State and Wake Forest could spell better games to come. The negative view says those were opportunities pissed away, with more of those on the way as well.
I said this on Twitter immediately following the game, but this is the path I never saw possible for 2021. Dino, by way of game mismanagement, is seemingly going to find a way to get fired (or mentally fired by this fan base) for going 5-7 when he should’ve gone 7-5. Going into this fall, I was pretty confident that 5-7 with close games brings Babers back. Now? I don’t know how you defend a 5-7 season with more endings like these last two weekends have given us. The onus is directly on Babers — or any coach in year six of his tenure — to be better than that.
Yes, there are still six games remaining. And yes, they could still turn things around on this season. But time is running out for Babers to re-inspire faith from this fan base. For many, there’s already no shot. But for the rest, he has a limited window remaining to show that coaching-induced losses like what we saw vs. Wake are the exception instead of the rule.