In more ways than one, it wasn‚Äôt supposed to go this way for Syracuse football.
SU‚Äôs 4-0 mark is legitimate. It‚Äôs impressive. It‚Äôs only the second time the program has turned the trick since the fall of the Soviet Union, and earned the team the No. 25 spot in the Coaches Poll – along with newfound attention around the country. The bad news is that with that added spotlight, the harder a potential fall may be. Syracuse‚Äôs start is an objectively good thing, but the challenge is now to stay level and avoid a midseason swoon.
Unfortunately, the warning signs of imminent struggle are there. They‚Äôre avoidable, but still there.
If you‚Äôre in denial, be honest with yourself. The Orange certainly aren‚Äôt a bad team, but there are still ‚Äúbuts‚Äù attached to all four of SU‚Äôs wins. Louisville has shaken off the cobwebs only recently after a brutal start to the season where the Orange happened to catch them. UConn is an FBS paste-eater. Purdue tried its absolute hardest to hand Syracuse a victory through 13 impossibly baffling penalties, and Virginia has now been exposed as a lightweight under new head coach Tony Elliott.
Call me a downer, but there‚Äôs an argument to be made that each and every one of those games has a caveat attached – especially if SU‚Äôs luck in close games begins to run out like it did last year.
‚ÄúEvery year is different, every team is different‚Ä¶I just feel like they feel like they can [win close games].‚Äù (Dino Babers on team‚Äôs play in close games, 9/26/22)
However, the real reason Syracuse‚Äôs ship has sprung worrying spouts is that its depth is starting to get depleted. On a sliding seaworthiness scale of ‚Äúaircraft carrier‚Äù to “Costa Concordia“, SU is slowly inching away from the stability of the former. Blame season-ending blows to linebacker Stefon Thompson in Week 1 and defensive tackle Terry Lockett last Friday. Against Virginia alone, SU was down five defensive starters at one point late in the game (Justin Barron via targeting, and four others due to injury). It‚Äôs also an open question as to when Derek McDonald, who began the year as Thompson‚Äôs backup, will return to the lineup after he too was a health-related scratch.
Even prior to the season, Syracuse was constructed with top-heavy depth. The Orange are now cutting down towards their second and third-stringers on defense in painful spots, and doing so ahead of teams who are sure to exploit weak links. It‚Äôs not unfeasible to imagine that SU could soon be smarting after a 5-0 start to the tune of a 5-4 or 5-5 record if things go sideways.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre averaging losing a starter per game‚Ä¶am I concerned? Yes, but the train‚Äôs left. We can‚Äôt put anybody else on it.‚Äù (Babers on defensive injuries, 9/26/22)
None of this is to say Syracuse is about to collapse or is hopelessly armed with a 4-0 record. The Orange are here for a reason, but keeping up accumulated momentum only gets harder as more and more injuries accrue. SU is now tantalizingly close to its first bowl since 2018, but situations like these are where leaders make their money.
Dino has recruited ‚Äúhis‚Äù guys to Syracuse and stacked together plenty of talent. His challenge now is keeping the ship steady as those same guys fall by the wayside and the seas get choppier. Bowl game ahoy if Babers can plug the leaks in his bow – but it‚Äôs a long fall to the bottom of the seafloor if he can‚Äôt.