2021 is a crucial season for Dino Babers and Syracuse football. We are now five years into the Babers era in Central New York. The results have been underwhelming, save a Cinderella 2018 season. Much of that success came with players Babers did not recruit himself. Many were holdovers from the Scott Schafer era, including standouts like Eric Dungey, most of the starting offensive line, Chris Slayton and Christopher Frederick. Babers deserves all the credit for filling out the roster and the job he did coaching that squad though.
Unfortunately, the past two years have made the 2018 season look like an outlier rather than a turning point. Offensive line and quarterback have been two positions the Orange has struggled to recruit in Babers’ tenure. Both spots have been weak points in each of the past two seasons. Entering his sixth season, Babers has had plenty of time to get his own people in the building and build this program how he wants it. Now it is time for results.
I don’t want people thinking I don’t like Dino. His infectious energy and dedication to his players makes him an excellent leader. He knows how to handle the media. He is a fantastic face of the program. Those traits are not enough to win football games, though. Not in a Power 5 conference.
The offensive line should be better with another year of seasoning and chemistry, and they’ve added several key transfers. It remains to be seen exactly what will happen at quarterback. Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader could be the mobile passer needed to get this offense back on track. Perhaps Tommy DeVito is in for a renaissance season. SU still has plenty of playmakers with Taj Harris, Anthony Queeley and Sean Tucker returning for another year.
Defensively, Babers faces a tough task of replacing three NFL-caliber defensive backs in Ifeatu Melifonwu, Andre Cisco and Trill Williams. Babers has done an excellent job of recruiting and developing defensive backs as a former defensive back himself. With a veteran defensive line and a few exciting playmakers poised for bigger roles, namely Garrett Williams and Geoff Cantin-Arku, the defense could be in for another solid year.
You can argue that 2020 should just be thrown out because of COVID-19. However, if the Orange do not see drastic improvement in 2021, Babers is going to be on the hot seat. I desperately want to see him succeed, but as we have already seen across college football, the pandemic has not really bought coaches much sympathy. The job is still to win football games. Syracuse managed that just once in 2020, despite playing 11 games. Ten losses matched a program-high set in 2005 and 2007, both under Greg Robinson.
When I say drastic improvement, I’m not expecting a repeat of 2018. Winning 10 games and finishing the season in the AP top 15 is a big ask of a team that finished 1-10 a year ago and has questions at quarterback. Getting back to being bowl eligible would be a good step to getting the program in order. If SU can find a way to go 3-1 in its non-conference schedule (Ohio, Rutgers, Albany and Liberty), I think going at least 3-5 in conference play is attainable. A Sept. 11 matchup against Rutgers could actually have huge bowl implications for both teams.
I don’t know that Babers has a bowl-game mandate, similar to how we talk about NFL coaches having a playoff mandate. If injuries knock Syracuse off track or the Orange finish 5-7 after taking Clemson, Virginia Tech and Liberty to the wire, I think we could see Babers return for Year 7. However, a 3-9 season, which is what Vegas is predicting, with the roster mostly healthy is going to get him fired, plain and simple. Babers’ seat is getting pretty hot heading into the summer and it has nothing to do with the weather getting warmer. Time to see how he handles the heat.