As the final seconds ticked off the clock for the Syracuse Orange football team’s Saturday night loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers, I couldn’t help but feel like we’d been expecting this end to the season.
Not just this game — though that was easy to see coming by this point. But the entirety of this three-game losing streak, the way things came undone, the lackluster showing in a pivotal game vs. Pitt, and ultimately, the season as a whole finishing just shy of bowl eligibility.
Going into this season, 5-7 was about in line with what many thought this team was capable of, but after nine games, we were sold on the fact that things could be better than expected. Before the season, a 5-7 record seemed like a reasonable enough improvement that Dino Babers could return. But now? What do we do with what we’ve just witnessed.
I don’t think Babers goes anywhere based on his rumored buyout, but whether moving on was an option or not, how do you judge this season? Is it by the first nine games — all nailbiters by a team that was competitive and hung tough against any opponent? Is it the fantastic play of Sean Tucker at running back? The peak of what this defense could do for the lion’s share of the year?
Or... do the last three games — all lopsided losses — really tell the story of what happened here?
There have been so many words spilled defending and questioning the Babers era in equal measure, yet there will be plenty more this offseason. But after these recent losses, I think what we saw to close things out may have been the more accurate story.
At one point, Babers and Sterlin Gilbert seemed to tailor an offense to what Garrett Shrader could do differently than Tommy DeVito. But defenses sniffing things out and the offense struggling late seem to indicate another narrative: Improv guided much of Shrader’s early days as starter. Once injuries piled up on the offensive line and teams got a read on the predictable play-calling, that was that.
No, I’m not blaming the staff for the injuries, even if a rash of them seem to happen to Syracuse more than most programs. But injuries have also been the story of most Orange football seasons of late, and you can only excuse so much. Sure, this team could’ve probably won six or seven games with a healthy Chris Elmore, Carlos Vettorello and Chris Bleich. But they didn’t have them, and they didn’t. So we judge by what we saw.
The future doesn’t appear incredibly bright either based on the final games of this year. The 2022 roster will start taking shape in the coming weeks, but because of how the personnel is managed, we still don’t know a lot of what we have on this Orange team. And we might still lose several more players to transfer. SU could make its own additions via recruiting and the portal. But there’s already quite a bit of ground to make up.
If we’re accepting Babers being back next year — and we probably should — then it just gets tough to see what’s next for this program. They can’t upgrade facilities in any significant way in the near-term, and can’t and shouldn’t adjust salaries for the current staff unless they can bring in a big offensive coordinator to fix this mess. Babers is now clearly on the hot seat and will have to overcome that to attract talent. We don’t have a ton of success finding it en masse lately as it is.
Babers’s ability to stick around past 2022 will be dictated by his willingness to actually change and adjust and fix the lingering issues that have plagued his tenure. The penalties, time management issues, lack of in-game adjustments, guarded approach to basically everything about the team... it all needs to go if there’s any chance he succeeds next year and/or beyond.
Personally, I think that has to start with letting go of Sterlin Gilbert, who’s been a complete failure as OC since arriving at Syracuse. And if it doesn’t, then Babers doesn’t doesn’t see his seat being as hot as he actually should.
Where we go from here requires a complete overhaul, or as much of one as we can get with the early signing period weeks away and the same coach likely in place for another season. I don’t think this staff is capable of such a radical re-imagination of itself and this program. I sincerely hope I’m wrong there.