With just over a month and change to go until Syracuse football gears up for its 2021 season, we’re starting to get a better feel for what fans should expect from the team. Several publications have put together their predictions for SU’s season, and if written prognostication isn’t your forté, the Fizz is monitoring the exploits of Syracuse in the simulated realm.
In the meantime, we’ve written a lot about the SU program and head coach Dino Babers – what needs to go right, what Babers might change, and how Syracuse hasn’t recruited very well. As much as you may like Dino Babers, all these things are ripe for critique after a 1-10 season that ranks as one of the worst seasons out of the class of coaching hires in 2016.
Babers has coached the same team for five seasons, and that’s no joke – there’s only so many coaches hired prior or during 2016 who are still with their same teams. But that begs the question: are the other hires doing better or worse than Dino?
I’ve narrowed it down to a few names who I think are comparable to Babers and Syracuse as a program. Let’s take a look at how they’ve fared.
Bronco Mendenhall (UVA) (Record: 30-32)
Mendenhall’s start at UVA prior to 2016 began similarly to Dino Babers. He took over a program at a school better known for basketball and was asked to right the ship after Mike London won just 26 games at the helm over six seasons between 2010-2015. After a rough 2-10 2016, the Cavaliers improved in the win column every year, qualifying for their first bowl in six years in 2017. In 2019, the Cavs finished 9-5, won the ACC Coastal, and lost the Orange Bowl to Florida. Mendenhall’s squad took a step back in 2020 and declined to participate in a bowl, but a reason for optimism for the future comes from their recruiting. UVA’s 2021 class ranked 32nd in the entire nation, and it was the third straight year they’ve ranked in the top 10 in the ACC.
Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) (Record: 38-26)
Fuente is the other ACC coach in this equation, but don’t let his overall record fool you – his job security has been under question since the end of last season. Fuente’s first season in Blacksburg is still his best (a 10-4 2016 capped off with a win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl) but declining win totals (9 to 6 to 8 to 5 in 2020) and recruiting classes (10th, 14th in the ACC the last two cycles) have caused concern among Tech faithful. Three straight bowl losses between 2017-19 haven’t helped things, either. After five years to execute his vision, Fuente is on the hot seat for 2021 after inconsistent success.
Tom Allen (Indiana) (Record: 24-22)
Allen is the oddball of the group as the only coach outside the ACC in this article. He also wasn’t hired before 2016, but instead was inserted on December 1st, 2016, just 27 days before Indiana’s 2016 Foster Farms Bowl appearance against Utah after head coach Kevin Wilson suddenly resigned. Allen had been on IU’s staff as defensive coordinator for just 11 months under Wilson, who – not unlike Dino Babers – struggled to get his up-tempo, no-huddle offense off the ground over the course of six seasons against a more talented and physical Big 10. Allen ended up losing that bowl game, but the program has soared to new heights under his watch. The team rapidly improved and put up a sensational 6-2 2020 that sparked legitimate conversations about a playoff appearance over an Ohio State squad that had played just five regular season games and thus could not legally qualify under established guidelines. After controversial rule-bending to muscle the Buckeyes onto primetime television, Indiana made no such trip. However, Allen has IU primed to continue its ascent in the Big 10 with the 24th overall recruiting class in the nation that features three 4-stars so far. He’s recruited well and developed talent. Indiana’s previous role as a joke of the conference makes it a solid comparison to Syracuse, who languished prior to Babers in the Big East and ACC for over a decade. However, the two programs have taken different trajectories over the past five years.
It’s clear after dissecting the fortunes of these coaches that recruiting (and player development) are the biggest catalysts to your success. Mendenhall and Allen have taken their programs to great heights through collection and development of talent, while Fuentes and Dino Babers have struggled in those areas and suffered through difficult seasons. Time will tell if SU’s 2022 class is the one to turn it around and cool off Dino Babers’ seat after a rough past two years.