On Saturday, we were there to bear witness.
We were there after Syracuse football saw College Gameday and its short-lived relevance slip through its grasp in one four-hour span in September 2019. A 63-20 immolation at the hands of Maryland in Week 2 of that year was the end of 2018’s beginning and a catapult back into the basement.
We were there to watch SU flatline in the face of the pandemic. We sat through crowdless games, 10 losses, and a season of embarrassments from Taj Harris’ childish flip-off all the way to Rex Culpepper’s baffling 4th-down spike.
We were there to watch Syracuse twist the screws on its hollowed fanbase with debilitating field goal losses and three lost chances to clinch a bowl last season. At the end of another losing year and three seasons spent in the pitch-black dark, ‘Cuse’s group of rising seniors sat with a record of 11-24. For all intents and purposes, head coach Dino Babers was hanging onto his seat by his fingernails.
Now, we collectively bask in the glow of a 6-0 start that marks the catharsis of a new generation.
“I’ve been in it [football] for 34 years…it happens basically once a decade [starting 6-0]…sometimes you need to just stop and smell the roses. This is special.” (Dino Babers, 10/15/22)
The power of SU’s special start all but washes away the dregs of 2019-21. It’s both a product of and a shimmering ray of a bright horizon for SU football. Consider alum and NFL stalwart Chandler Jones’ recent seven-figure donation, recent success of player development, and pending construction of the John A. Lally Athletics Complex the borne fruit of better days.
Four of SU’s final six games are on the road, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as the Orange can stay healthy and avoid any more costly injuries, they’re playing with house money. The potential struggle of a sixth win against a solid home stretch of ACC opponents is gone. That absence of added pressure helps, especially with just five remaining players who were a part of ‘Cuse’s 2018 bowl season (and zero skill position players if you don’t count Chris Elmore) still on the team. Learning how to win with a new group is the hard part, and SU can now play more freely than it has in years.
Keeping up a winning culture is a different matter entirely, but SU and Athletic Director John Wildhack can take clear-cut steps to try and keep its coaching core together. Moves made to keep Syracuse’s sideline intact may be more important than anything else. Just ask the zombified remains of Virginia’s high-flying recent past how things are going without now-SU offensive coordinator Robert Anae. The awful Cavs have leapt back into the stone age and rank 122nd in the FBS in scoring with head coach Tony Elliott looking less ready for his role with each passing week.
On the other side of the coin, talented assistants in Anae and defensive coordinator Tony White have helped elevate Dino Babers’ ability to lead. Babers is the one calling the shots and deserves a lion’s share of the credit, but it’s now clear he was substantially held back by the ill-fated two-season tenure of former OC Sterlin Gilbert. Hindsight shows us what an incapable serf he was; both Babers and the program barely survived after six wins, 17 losses, and grisly offensive numbers in back-to-back years.
The door back to program stability is cracked open, and SU can wrest it wide open next year. Even with a mess of senior talent on its way out after this season, ‘Cuse can still play its cards intelligently and keep its band of coaches together. That and renewed enthusiasm may be enough to carry the Orange through a less-stellar 2023. In the meantime, go ahead and feel good about storming the JMA Dome turf on Saturday. Like Babers says, moments like that one only come around once in a good while – so celebrate and get ready for bowl season, Fizz Nation.