The clear highlight of the 2018 season was when Syracuse upset #1 Clemson in front of a rollicking crowd at the Carrier Dome.
The victory nudged the Orange to 4-3 and seemed to suggest that perhaps the team’s bowl drought was over. After hard-fought losses at #8 Miami and Florida State, quarterback Eric Dungey’s season was over due to injury.
Dungey’s injury was the headliner, but several other injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, depleted the SU roster and the team’s season ended with three more losses. When the dust settled, Dino Babers’ second season ended just as his first did at Syracuse, with a 4-8 overall record and a 2-6 ACC mark.
The Orange offense still struggled to run the ball with any consistency, as Dungey paced the team in both yards and touchdowns on the ground, often making something out of nothing. The pass attack was headlined by two excellent performances by Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips. The two seniors combined for 194 receptions for 2,251 yards and 11 scores. And, by being seniors, neither is still eligible for the Orange.
The lack of experience at receiver will be offset in part by loads of experience on the offensive line. Four starters return and they will be joined by Aaron Roberts, who started every game in 2017 before losing last year to injury, and Koda Martin, a graduate transfer who started 16 times at Texas A&M, including 12 times last season.
Like their linemates on offense, the defensive front is the most experienced group on the defensive side of the ball. All four projected starters return from last year, when they combined for 27 starts, led by Chris Slayton’s dozen. The defensive backfield should be improved, as three returning starters will be joined by Antwan Cordy, who has lost almost all of the last two seasons due to injury.
The strength of the line and backs is part of the reason the team is switching to a 4-2-5 alignment as its new base defense. That schematic change will also limit the exposure of an inexperienced linebacking crew. With Parris Bennett and three-time captain Zaire Franklin graduated, the Orange will be breaking in a new group of linebackers.
While the inexperience at wide receiver and linebacker are issues, perhaps the greatest question hanging over Syracuse is if they can they stay healthy, particularly Eric Dungey. Dungey enters his senior year with 25 starts and three seasons ended by injury.
And while the team has suffered without Dungey late in the last two seasons, the team is yet to win a game under Babers during the month of November (0-8). That underscores the injuries the team has suffered and brings the health issue to light. And, if the team suffers a rash of injuries, has the talent level of the entire roster been brought up to enable the team to still compete?
Last season, that answer was a resounding “no”. The first five losses by the Orange were by a combined 31 points. The final three were by at least 21 points apiece, including a 56-10 rout at Louisville. The defense, which gave up 28 points per game over the first nine contests, became little more than a speed bump, giving up 54 points per outing in the last three. The offense, which kept SU in most games under Dungey, scored 38 in its first half without the starting quarterback and totaled 29 points in its last five.
If the Orange are going to get to six wins and a bowl berth, both sides of the ball need to show improvement throughout the roster, especially if injuries rear their head again.