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Dino Babers is all about the year 2 leap. Can he do it at Syracuse?

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The Orange are one of the country’s most experienced teams and will be a blast to watch.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College
Dino Babers
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

According to the 247Sports Composite, among the top 12 prospects in the state of New York in 2017 were two offensive linemen, two defensive linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks, and a kicker. There was a single well-touted quarterback and receiver. In 2016, it was similar: one QB, one receiver, and nine defenders among the top 13.

For a lot of non-bluebloods, it helps to run a system to which you can recruit. The Northeast has produced plenty of trench talent and linebackers, but there’s probably a reason why Joe Paterno’s great Penn State teams were based around a ground game and a sturdy defense, Greg Schiano used the same identity when building Rutgers from rubble, and why “run, play defense, and don’t pass unless you have to (or unless it’s a trick play)” was a guiding principle for Syracuse legend Ben Schwartzwalder.

Of course, if you believe your system can move the football anywhere, then living in an area with massive defensive talent could be perfect.

Of the 25 prospects I referred to above, Syracuse only landed two of them, so this is a hypothetical. But the hire of Babers last year was fascinating.

It was a massive break from tradition to hire an offensive coach. Since Schwartzwalder’s retirement, five of six hires had been from defense: Michigan line coach Frank Maloney in 1974, Browns linebackers coach Dick MacPherson in 1981, MacPherson’s linebackers coach Paul Pasqualoni in 1991, Texas co-coordinator Greg Robinson in 2005, and Syracuse coordinator Scott Shafer in 2013. Only Doug Marrone (Saints OC, hired in 2009) broke this mold.

Babers isn’t just any offensive coach, however. He’s an air raid guy, or became something like one in his second coaching life. He crafted a physical, run-first style as coordinator at Arizona (1998-2000) and Texas A&M (2001-02) before joining Art Briles at Baylor in 2008. Exposure to this extreme version of the spread changed his ideals.

He took over as Eastern Illinois head coach in 2012, and by 2013, he had Jimmy Garoppolo throwing for 5,000 yards and winning 12 games. He moved to Bowling Green in 2014, and by 2015, Matt Johnson was throwing for 4,900 yards for a MAC title team.

Time for a breakthrough at Syracuse, then?

This fall will test Babers’ abilities. In his first year, Syracuse’s average only increased by 0.7 points per game while opponents’ scoring averages increased by 5.9. The offense underwent a drastic change with a makeshift line, while an extreme youth movement, both on the defensive line (expected) and in the secondary (unexpected), forced the defense to start from scratch.

In theory, pieces are in place. The two leading passers, four leading rushers, three of five receivers, and six linemen with starting experience return, and the skill corps could get a nice injection of youth. On defense, the top five linemen, top three linebackers, and most of what was supposed to be last year’s secondary are back.

This is one of the most experienced teams in the country, and it’s still going to be reliant on juniors. If a breakthrough doesn’t happen in 2017, there will be another shot in 2018.

So now it just comes down to turning Babers’ vision (and that of defensive coordinator Brian Ward) into reality. If it’s possible to thrive with a pass-crazy, tempo-obsessive offense in the northern ACC, Babers is the man to make it happen.


2016 in review

2016 Syracuse statistical profile.

We got a two-week glimpse of Babers’ vision. In October, Syracuse posted back-to-back 80th-percentile performances, beating Virginia Tech at home (31-17) and Boston College on the road (28-20). The defense limited big plays and made red zone stops, and the offense gained 1,093 yards on 173 snaps. And the win over Tech gave us this:

Against BC’s top-25 defense, quarterback Eric Dungey found an incredible rhythm, going 32-for-38 for 434 yards, three touchdowns, and one pick. But he suffered a head injury the next week against Clemson and was lost for the season.

  • First 6 games (2-4): Avg. percentile performance: 45% (~top 70) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.5, Cuse 5.6 (minus-0.9) | Avg. plays per game: Cuse 83.2, Opp 72.8 (plus-10.4)
  • Next 2 games (2-0): Avg. percentile performance: 85% (~top 20) | Avg. yards per play: Cuse 6.3, Opp 5.7 (plus-0.6) | Avg. plays per game: Cuse 86.5, Opp 66.0 (plus-20.5)
  • Last 4 games (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 29% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 8.0, Cuse 4.7 | Avg. plays per game: Opp 75.3, Cuse 74.8 (minus-0.5)

Zach Mahoney took over and struggled against Clemson, NC State, and Florida State, and the offense’s sudden inefficiency did the defense no favors. (Mahoney did rebound and throw for 440 yards in a 76-61 shootout loss to Pitt in the season finale.)

If Syracuse breaks through, it will look a lot like the Tech and BC games. Hopefully that includes more incredible locker room speeches.


Offense

Syracuse offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

“When a quarterback throws a receiver a ball, a receiver should be able to throw that same ball back to that quarterback,” Babers said. “And that is what’s been missing. What that means is that you and I have played catch so much that you’re the pitcher and I’m the catcher. You throw me a ball, I throw you a ball, you throw me a ball, I throw you a ball. We take our mitts off, and you’d have to say, ‘Which one’s the catcher, and which one’s the pitcher?’ because we’ve exercised that skill so many times.”

“Our quarterback has to be a thrower, not a runner,” Babers said. “It’s not a wishbone offense. It’s not Navy’s offense. We do want to run the football, but our quarterbacks need to be NFL quarterbacks. They need to be guys that, after they have a fantastic college career, they go to the pros and they have a pro career.”

This part of Babers’ tremendous spring conversation with SB Nation’s Richard Johnson reminded me of the Bull Durham line: “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.” The beauty of air raid-style offenses is the way they turn the most complex game into a pitch-and-catch routine. But it takes a while to master that simplicity.

Dungey had ups and downs in his first year with Babers. Excellent against Colgate, shaky against Louisville. Decent to good against USF, UConn, and Notre Dame; shaky against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. In nine games, he produced a passer rating of 160 or better three times and 110 or worse four times. But that BC game was one hell of a way to make a final impression.

Dungey (or Mahoney, or incoming freshman Tommy Devito, or whoever) should have plenty of efficiency weapons. Seniors Ervin Phillips and Steve Ishmael combined for a tremendous 57 percent success rate but only 10 yards per catch, and running back Moe Neal moved to what appears to be a pretty natural fit at inside receiver. (He still rushed plenty in the spring, though.) Big plays came mostly from Amba Etta-Tawo, who’s now a Jaguar.

Among three big targets, someone must step forward. Adly Enoicy and Jamal Custis are 6’5 juniors who were well-regarded recruits, and 6’3 sophomore Devin C. Butler had a nice spring. Odds are decent that one of them will become reliable, but Etta-Tawo (131 targets, 94 catches, 1,482 yards, 14 TD) set the bar high.

This was an incredible change in scheme. In 2015, the Orange ran 68 percent of the time on standard downs, 23rd in the country. Last year: 46 percent, 123rd. On passing downs, though, the percentages were the same — 36 percent in 2015, 35 percent in 2016. Dungey and Mahoney combined for about 11 non-sack rushes per game, and Dungey’s mobility paid off at times.

The backs still carry the ball occasionally, and they need to improve when they do. Neal averaged 5.3 yards per carry, but No. 1 rusher Dontae Strickland averaged just 3.5. He hasn’t proved he can be a big-time rusher, but having a line that can keep the same five guys on the field wouldn’t hurt. The Orange had two returning line starters last year, and they combined for five starts. Nine linemen started at least one game, and the effects were obvious.

Those responsible for 51 of last year’s 60 starts are back. Now keep them healthy.

NCAA Football: Colgate at Syracuse
Ervin Phillips (3) and Steve Ishmael (8)
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Syracuse defensive radar

The offense had a few impressive games. The defense had ... two. Two years after peaking at 23rd in Def. S&P+, the Orange plummeted to 92nd; for perspective, the worst they ever ranked during Robinson’s disastrous tenure was 86th. Ouch.

Inefficiency was an issue, but big plays were deadly.

Syracuse defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Syracuse allowed 75 gains of 20-plus yards (116th in the country) and 12 passes of 50-plus yards (126th). The season was up and down until the end, when it was just down.

  • Syracuse pass defense, first 4 games: 53% completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 122.1 passer rating
  • Syracuse pass defense, next 4 games: 57% completion rate, 15.6 yards per completion, 140.0 passer rating
  • Syracuse pass defense, last 4 games: 63% completion rate, 16.7 yards per completion, 173.9 passer rating

The secondary was supposed to improve, returning each of its top six tacklers, but the top four — safeties Antwan Cordy and Chauncey Scissum, corners Cordell Hudson and Juwan Dowels — played a total of 19 games.

Instead, it was an unexpected youth movement. Eight of the top nine in the secondary were either freshmen and sophomores. Of course the Orange were going to get roasted.

That could change. All eight are back, as are Cordy and Dowels and Toledo graduate transfer Jordan Martin. Cordy could be the key. He recorded 12 tackles for loss and picked off two passes in 2015.

Freshmen and sophomores made 84 percent of the tackles on the line, and at least a couple of play-makers emerged in tackle Chris Slayton and end Josh Black. And a less glitchy line could free up a trio of linebackers — Parris Bennett, Zaire Franklin, Jonathan Thomas — that accounted for 20.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, eight passes defensed, and six forced fumbles without any help. Give them some assistance, and see what happens.

Central Michigan v Syracuse
Parris Bennett (30) and Zaire Franklin (4)
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Things were bad enough overall that, despite the glitchy pass defense, opponents were content to run 61 percent of the time on standard downs (62nd-most) and 38 percent on passing downs (30th). Yes, the Syracuse offense and its threat of tempo (and its early deficits) played into that, but it’s still telling.

There will always be pressure on this defense because of this offense. The Orange are going to give up plenty of points and yards. But at Bowling Green, Babers’ second-year defense still made a dramatic jump, from 112th to 61st in Def. S&P+. That happened to be the year coordinator Ward came aboard. Ward’s defense was balanced and aggressive on standard downs and got away with an ineffective pass rush on passing downs.

Syracuse had the latter part of that equation (the bad pass rush) down pat last year, but experience should create some semblance of defensive balance on standard downs.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse
Chris Slayton
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Brisly Estime was a decent receiver (48 receptions, 8.8 yards per target) but a tremendous return man. Syracuse didn’t force nearly enough punts, but Estime’s 16 returns averaged 17.7 yards, and the Orange ranked fifth in punt return efficiency. They were also 30th in punt efficiency thanks to the work of sophomore-to-be Sterling Hofrichter.

Of course, they still ranked 86th in Special Teams S&P+ because kicker Cole Murphy was pretty average, and both kickoffs and kick returns were drastically below-standard. Estime and Murphy are gone, but the key will be kickoffs in both directions. Thee will be plenty of them in Syracuse games.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Central Connecticut NR 45.0 100%
9-Sep Middle Tennessee 89 12.4 76%
16-Sep Central Michigan 97 14.3 80%
23-Sep at LSU 4 -22.8 9%
30-Sep at N.C. State 27 -8.9 30%
7-Oct Pittsburgh 33 -2.3 45%
13-Oct Clemson 6 -16.8 17%
21-Oct at Miami 18 -13.0 23%
4-Nov at Florida State 3 -25.2 7%
11-Nov Wake Forest 64 3.1 57%
18-Nov at Louisville 14 -17.5 16%
25-Nov Boston College 76 8.0 68%
Projected S&P+ Rk 60
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 53 / 59
Projected wins 5.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 1.3 (63)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 62 / 62
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 0.3
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (64%, 93%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.5 (0.5)

Regardless of whether it’s successful, the Babers experiment will stay interesting. That Mike Leach is doing alright at Washington State proves these offenses can work far from the hometowns of blue-chip receivers, and if Babers sways local defenders to don orange, the program could operate at a high level.

2017 is all about the second-year leap. Syracuse returns wonderful experience and is projected to improve from 76th to 60th in S&P+. Based on Babers’ previous stops, though, the ceiling might be a bit higher.

As with so many building teams, a fast start is key. S&P+ favors Syracuse in five games: the first three, and two of the last three.

A 3-0 start would include two wins over solid mid-majors (MTSU, which I suspect is undervalued by S&P+ at 89th, and CMU), and late home wins over Wake Forest and BC would prove progress as well.

But if you’re looking for a sixth win, the Oct. 7 visit from Pitt is just about the only option. The road slate features visits to LSU, NC State, Miami, Florida State, and Louisville. Yikes. Maybe moving to a power conference means more of a third-year leap?

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.