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Evolution vs. Revolution: where did it all go wrong for Dino Babers and Syracuse football?

Conversely, did anything ever go right?

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NCAA Football: Syracuse at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Days before the Syracuse Orange faced the Clemson Tigers on Sept. 30, head coach Dino Babers entered his weekly press conference with all the right feelings: confidence, optimism, determination.

Could you blame him? The Orange just secured a second-straight 4-0 start and the program’s first out-of-conference sweep. With the Tigers looking vulnerable, Syracuse University students rallied together with a first-ever “Clemson game camp out.” Babers and company WERE eyeing a second-straight bowl game bid, and the arrow was clearly pointing up.

That was then. Over a month later, Syracuse remains at four wins and without a victory over the ACC. Babers and the Orange lost their first five ACC games by an average of 24.6 points, including Friday night’s 17-10 defeat at home against the Boston College Eagles. A once-promising season which pointed towards building consistency has regressed into uncertainty, especially with Syracuse needing two wins in its last three games to avenge this season.

The shift from optimism to frustration showed on Monday, when Babers addressed the media in anticipation of the BC game. Look at the videos side-by-side. Note the difference in Babers’ tone and demeanor. It’s night and day.

Babers, like us, knows his hot seat is only getting hotter. What comes next between him and his future with a program has loomed since the preseason. All the evidence suggests Babers will have one year left on his contract by season’s end, and the tough conversations between Babers and SU Athletic Director John Wildhack will need to be had.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Wildhack never went into specifics about Babers’s future in a recent interview. He labeled November an “important month” for the Orange and emphasized a need to focus on the present. He deflected on speculative questions, specifically about if Babers could be fired mid-season if a bad situation turns worse.

The dynamic between Babers and Wildhack dates back years. Babers was hired in 2016 to take over the coaching duties from Scott Shafer. Wildhack pushed for a long-term extension for Babers after he guided Syracuse in 2018 to a 10-3 season — the program’s most wins in a single season since 2001.

Whether you liked the decision then or not, it was a justifiable move at the time. Babers remains the Orange’s longest-tenured coach since Paul Pasqualoni. Between that unforgettable ‘01 campaign and Babers’ arrival in 2016, Syracuse finished above-.500 just four times in 15 years. Babers helped the Orange get in the AP poll three times in his seven seasons with the program. You have to go back to the apex of the Pasqualoni days to find that level of success.

For a fanbase that hasn’t seen any glory days in what’s felt like forever, Babers at least offered a few glimmers of hope during his tenure.

At the same time, it’s easy to understand why frustration is mounting — particularly among the everyday Syracuse fanbase.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Connecticut Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The goal behind the deal was to solidify the Orange’s future, beginning at the head coaching spot. As Wildhack said back in 2018:

“It’s a long-term extension, and we wanted to emphasize that for recruiting purposes, 2020 and beyond. This is about what is in the best interest of the program.”

Including the BC loss, Babers now boasts a 40-55 overall record in seven seasons and counting with Syracuse; he’s ended with a .500 record in conference play or better just twice (2018 and 2022). The only outliers in Babers career are the 10-win campaign in 2018 and the 1-10 year from hell in 2020 — outside of that, Syracuse has averaged exactly five wins over the rest of his tenure.

2022 changed the dynamic a little bit. Getting back to a bowl game laid the foundation for expectations this season for Babers. There was hope to get some momentum for the program going, especially with facility improvements and a high-ranking 2024 recruitment class coupled with enough success on the field.

Wildhack won’t publicly answer it, but you know he’s already weighing his options. As Kevin noted Saturday, however, it will take more than a head coaching change to get the Orange back on track in any capacity. There needs to be an honest conversation about SU’s efforts with name, image and likeness. Addressing Syracuse’s long-standing issues with depth will be another.

Syracuse can’t just replace Babers, whether that’s with a familiar name or with a coach on the rise. It needs to make a foundational investment.

The Orange already blew one major-stakes game last night, a nationally-televised during SU’s “Family Weekend” against a solid, but not other-worldly BC program. Next weekend presents another nail-biter: the Pittsburgh Panthers in Yankee Stadium. Forget the on-field impact - the image of Syracuse Athletics is in play here, and so too is the view of the Syracuse alumni and donors.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NC State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of how this season turns out, the situation will still remain uncertain. In the preseason, there was an actual conversation on what would come next for Babers: a lame-duck season, an extension with varying degrees of length or termination. Clearly, the tide is shifting towards the third option.

The announcement of the new ACC schedule for the next seven years also complicates the outlook ahead. Let’s be honest: 2024 features an incredibly doable slate. The out-of-conference games are Ohio, Army, Holy Cross and UConn; the ACC games are Georgia Tech, Miami, Stanford, Virginia Tech, BC, Cal, NC State and Pitt. That’s a 7-8 win season in a worst case scenario.

The original text for this story ended with the following:

With all this in mind, is it smarter for Babers to have one final “prove it” year before negotiations of any kind? How would that impact the next few years of the program’s direction?

Obviously, the ideal result this Friday is that Syracuse fights back and gets a much-needed win over BC, pushing one win away from bowl eligibility.

Then again, October has been anything but ideal for Babers and the Orange.

Now, evolution seems to be out the window with Babers seemingly out the door. Which means, it looks like we’re back to square one.

And if Syracuse is going to push the demolition button on this era of the program, we can only hope SU sets up Babers’ successor well enough for the next.