Over the last 10 seasons, the Syracuse Orange have had three head coaches that went a combined 48-75 with only three winning seasons (none better than 8-5 or 7-5 before the bowl game). Thanks to joining the ACC, they now have a tough road that goes through Clemson, Florida State and Louisville.
Despite its large population, the state of New York is not exactly a hotbed of college football talent. Only 13 percent of Syracuse's last five classes came from within the state (former head coach Scott Shafer largely ignored N.Y.). That means the Orange are competing on national turf for most of their players, which is very difficult for non-traditional powers.
If you were drawing up a blueprint for Syracuse contention, it would require an unconventional strategy allowing the Orange to target undervalued players and present a unique challenge to other teams in the division. Something like what new head coach Dino Babers has been using at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green over the last four years while going 37-16.
The Babers plan for Orange success
Dino Babers has always been a strong recruiter, but he struck gold as a part of Art Briles' initial staff at Baylor, where he learned the veer and shoot offense. Babers started out by simply overseeing overall team strategy while keeping other Briles coaches around, but now has added mastery of the system to his growing skill set.
The system is everything, and it's the reason Babers has a chance of catapulting Syracuse up the ladder in the ACC.
It's common for people to consider it a branch of the air raid, because Briles got his start in the college game as the RB coach for Mike Leach at Texas Tech. However, this offense is not the air raid, and it's not like the other spread systems that are in vogue across the college game.
Syracuse was already running spread concepts the last few years and was basically operating something similar to the West Coast/spread hybrid that has taken hold at Alabama, Penn State and elsewhere around the country. That system combines West Coast passing concepts with spread alignments, a simplified run game and some marriage between the two with RPOs (run/pass options).
That's not the case with the veer and shoot, an option-style offense with a vertical passing game built in. If you watch a Bowling Green game from the last few years, you'll see very heavy usage of RPOs and QBs taking more deep shots in a quarter than a team like Syracuse would often take in a full game.
One of the wonderful features about this system for a program that can't count on consistently recruiting top talent is it's designed to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. While West Coast-inspired varieties of the spread make it easier for offenses to make the most of their best players, the veer and shoot works a bit more like the triple option and is looking for specific cogs that fit into the system.
Babers is going to be looking for big, powerful offensive linemen that can smash opposing teams with run concepts like power-O and Iso, and then complement that run game with blazing fast WRs that threaten the perimeter with screens and the deep coverage with verticals. There's a great economy of concepts in this offense, and the goal is to create stress at every part of the field in order to score as much as possible, not to control the ball or run clock.
Opposing teams are not going to enjoy the aggressive, freewheeling approach of the new Orange offense. Babers goes for it on fourth down and always reaches for the throat in his playcalling. Set aside your conventional rules for how often teams take deep shots or when they take their pedal off the gas. The coaches in this style of offense don't stop until you're dead and buried.
QB play in Babers' veer and shoot
The most important part of this offense is the QB position, but veer and shoot QBs are typically made, not found. Here are the numbers for the starting QB in each of Babers' four seasons as a head coach:
|Year||Player||Attempts-Yards||Yards per attempt||TD-INT|
These gaudy numbers suggest you're looking at an intricate passing offense dependent on tremendous QB play. After all isn't Matt Johnson possibly about to be drafted, just as Garoppolo was? But this is simply the result of a passing game that's been perfectly married to the spread and the run game to allow for easy reads and decisions by the QB that inflict maximal damage.
For instance, last year Bowling Green absolutely shredded Butch Jones' Volunteers with this play:
The Falcons ran it with double TEs or a single TE, and the QB just kept an eye on whichever inside receiver was covered by Tennessee's linebacker rather than the strong safety. During Bowling Green's first TD drive, Babers could count on that TE being entirely uncovered, as the LB would always get sucked in by the run action and fail to cover him:
The Falcons ran that play three times that drive, resulting in three completions as easy as the one above for 48 yards of offense. It would have been more, but on the last completion the TE found the end zone before he encountered a tackler. With easy reads like this combined with regular downfield shots it can become very straightforward to throw for more than 3,000 yards.
How fast will this catch on at Syracuse?
The Orange return some nice offensive skill players and a young, effective QB in Eric Dungey who should take well to the new system. Babers will have guys that can stretch the field with WRs Steve Ishmael and Brisly Estime, while redshirt senior Alvin Cornelius may finally find room to shine in an offense that can feature his straight-line speed.
The Syracuse OL lost three starters from last year, and Babers is working to get the unit in shape to handle his preferred light-speed tempo. The OL should find the new system will do them a lot of favors and allow them to generally work against honest or even undermanned run fronts if the passing game gets going.
Finishing near the top of the ACC is a really tall order and not one that should be expected off the bat for Syracuse. But the nature of Babers' system should allow him to find ways to set his inherited players up for success and to plug in the types of three-star athletes that can thrive thanks to a system that does the heavy lifting.