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Dino Babers’ Syracuse must finish strong for a change

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The Orange have fast starts and big moments, but need much stronger finishes.

Central Connecticut State v Syracuse
Dino Babers
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Dino Babers has the moments. His 2016 post-game speech after Syracuse’s upset of Virginia Tech was legendary the moment it reached the Internet. His Orange’s upset of No. 2 Clemson last fall was maybe their biggest Carrier Dome win since the mid-1980s. (Yes, it had a lovely post-game speech, too.)

Babers has the close-game prowess, too. His 10-6 record in one-possession games is backed up as legitimate by the advanced stats. He’s going to squeeze the most possible wins out of his team’s statistical profile.

Now he just needs the finish.

In 2016, his first year at Cuse, his Orange began the season 4-4 and finished 0-4. Last fall, they started 4-3, lost a couple of nail biters, then collapsed again.

Syracuse in 2017

Category First 9 games Last 3 games
Category First 9 games Last 3 games
Record 4 W, 5 L 0 W, 3 L
Avg. score SU 29, Opp 25 Opp 54, SU 22
Avg. yards per play Opp 5.5, SU 5.2 Opp 8.6, SU 5.7
Avg. percentile performance 44% (46% off, 52% def) 12% (42% off, 12% def)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. +4.1 PPG -26.9 PPG
Passer rating allowed 128.7 180.6

Counting his two years at Bowling Green, Babers is now .500 in September (9-9), good in October (10-4), and somewhere between shaky and bad in November and beyond (7-13). His offense tends to do its part when its quarterback is healthy (not an issue at BGSU, very much an issue at Syracuse), but his defenses putter out.

His BGSU teams gave up 120 points in their last three games in 2014 and 126 in their last four during the 2015 MAC title run. At Cuse, the late-season defensive disasters have been downright amazing: 54-0 to Clemson and 76-61 to Pitt in 2016, 64-43 to Wake Forest, 56-10 to Louisville, and 42-14 to Boston College in 2017.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s the offense, right? The tempo and explosiveness of the Babers offense wears the defense out late in the season. That has to be it, right?

That certainly didn’t help at BGSU, where the Falcons’ D was on the field for 1,156 plays in 2014 (second-most in FBS) and 1,084 in 2015 (third-most). But in his two seasons in New York, Cuse’s defense has been in the bottom 40 in total snaps both years. And it’s cratered all the same.

Taking the offense out of the conversation for a moment, there’s no question that Syracuse isn’t playing enough defenders. Maybe that’s a stylistic decision by coordinator Brian Ward — some teams (Iowa under Kirk Ferentz, USC under coordinator Clancy Pendergast) just don’t play a lot of guys — but more likely, it’s a sign of awful depth.

In 2017, six Syracuse linemen, four linebackers, and seven defensive backs recorded 10 or more tackles. That is a paltry number, especially considering a couple of those 17 defenders missed at least a third of the season. Worse yet, the line was loaded with sophomores, and the secondary had a few in key roles as well. When you have neither experience, nor a wealth of defenders that you trust, you’re probably going to crater.

There’s good news and bad news heading into 2018.

  • Good: The line, perhaps the most important area for depth, returns almost everyone. The top five tacklers up front are all back, as is another contributor (tackle Josh Black) who was on his way to a big year before missing the final two-thirds of the season with injury. Ward might find he trusts a much larger number of defenders, and that could help immensely.
  • Bad: You can’t definitively say that the rest of the defense is any deeper. Last year’s top four linebackers are gone, and while three key junior DBs return, they’re the only returnees among last year’s top eight in the back. Ward and Babers will be asking a couple of JUCO transfers and perhaps some redshirt freshmen to contribute as quickly as possible.

If the offense is more consistent and efficient, that would help, too. One of these damn years, quarterback Eric Dungey might stay healthy for an entire season. It’s probably not a coincidence that these defensive collapses came when he was hurt; then again, his backup might be pretty good this time.

Offense

2017 Syracuse offensive radar

Dungey had his biggest moment in his biggest game. Against Clemson last October, the senior-to-be completed 20 of 32 passes for 278 yards, making big plays on standard downs (nine completions for 185 yards) and avoiding disaster on passing downs (11-for-17 for 93). Not including sacks, he also rushed 15 times for 91 yards.

The game showed off his tenacity, play-making ability, and fatal flaw. He took six sacks, meaning he got credit for “rushing” over 20 times, and he got hit a lot.

Dungey missed the final three games of 2015 with concussion issues. He left one 2016 game with an undisclosed injury, then he was knocked out of that year’s Clemson game and missed the final three with concussion issues. He left the MTSU game with a head injury, then left the Florida State game with a toe injury, was a late scratch for two straight games, then had season-ending foot surgery.

Dungey has yet to play a game after a November 7. In 2018, Syracuse plays Louisville, Notre Dame, and BC after November 7. He is a tough-as-hell veteran leader, but you can’t lead much when you’re not on the field, and I don’t know if he can avoid hits. It’s kind of his thing. So you should get to know the names of his backups:

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse
Eric Dungey
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Senior Dontae Strickland, junior Moe Neal, and sophomore Markenzy Pierre are all back, though none was even remotely efficient. Syracuse ranked 99th in rushing success rate, which doomed the Orange to passing downs and then double-doomed them in the red zone — they were 111th in points per scoring opportunity.

The line returns almost everybody and adds Texas A&M starting tackle Koda Martin; including Martin, seven different returnees have at least nine career starts, and guard Evan Adams was second-team All-ACC. Whatever the running game’s ceiling is with this group (and it still might not be very high), we’ll find out this year.

Still, this is a passing offense. Dungey’s scrambling meant Syracuse’s run rates were higher than you’d expect on passing downs, but the Orange ran just 48 percent of the time on standard downs, 122nd in FBS and 12 percentage points below the national average.

There’s an optimistic and a pessimistic way to talk about Syracuse’s receiving corps.

  • Optimistic: of the nine players who averaged at least one target per game, seven are back. Continuity!
  • Pessimistic: the two that are gone combined for 60 percent of last year’s targets. Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips combined to catch 194 of 305 passes for 2,251 yards (they also had 138 catches in 2016). Those seven returnees? 119 catches and 1,263 yards. Losing those two is like another team losing its top four targets.

Tight end Ravian Pierce (32 catches, 311 yards) had the highest success rate of any of these targets, at 55 percent. He hasn’t shown any major big-play ability, but the goal is giving Dungey easy options, and he might do that. Strickland and Neal also combined for 30 catches and three touchdowns.

Out wide, though, it’s Devin C. Butler and a bunch of unknowns. Butler had a nice game against Pitt (seven catches and a touchdown) but otherwise averaged about two catches per game. Junior Sean Riley, senior Jamal Custis, and sophomore Nykeim Johnson each had eight catches — Riley had four for 82 yards against CMU, and Custis had a 47-yard touchdown against Florida State, and that’s about all we know about them. Maybe there’s big-play potential there. And maybe senior and freak athlete Antwan Cordy can stay healthy enough to make a contribution.

This receiving corps is still thinner than Babers’ units at previous stops. Combined with the shoddy run game, that has resulted in inefficiency and predictability.

It’s hard to say that will be different this year, though Babers is trying: he has three redshirt freshmen in the chamber, and he just signed five more targets, including high-three-star Ed Hendrix, in February. A less green DeVito could find a nice rapport with a fun, young corps in 2019 and beyond. But this is still 2018 for a few more months.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse
Devin C. Butler
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Syracuse defensive radar

We know what Ward wants to do with this defense; he just hasn’t had enough pieces to do it yet. Syracuse was pretty good at taking the fight to opponents on standard downs and forcing them off-schedule. The Orange ranked 41st in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 44th in standard downs sack rate, and 49th in overall Standard Downs S&P+.

End Alton Robinson and tackle Chris Slayton combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and six sacks up front, and nose tackle McKinley Williams tossed in another four TFLs as well. All three are back.

Two main problems:

  • Linebackers were the primary source of havoc — the top three combined for 20.5 TFLs and 27 percent of Cuse’s havoc plays (TFLs, passes defensed, forced fumbles). All three are gone, including an awesome weakside LB in Parris Bennett.
  • Any advantages disappeared on passing downs. The Orange were 101st in Passing Downs S&P+ and produced the worst sack rate in the country (1.3 percent) on such downs. Either Ward didn’t trust his secondary enough to risk blitzing or the blitz didn’t get home. But opponents had a better passer rating on third-and-long (144.0) than they did on first down (135.5). It’s not supposed to work that way.
NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse
Chris Slayton
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It does seem like the line could be a legitimate strength. Robinson, Slayton, and Williams, plus junior ends Brandon Berry and Kendall Coleman and junior tackles Kenneth Ruff and Josh Black, provide a large core. Plus, sophomore Kingsley Jonathan was the second highest-rated recruit of the bunch (just behind Slayton) and had 1.5 TFLs among his three tackles last fall. He could be ready for more of an attacking role. And fan-favorite blocking back Chris Elmore could spend time at DT, too.

The problem is everything else. Junior Andrew Armstrong is your leading returning tackler at LB, and he had all of 9.5 stops and zero havoc plays last year. And while the three most disruptive members of the secondary — corners Christopher Fredrick and Scoop Bradshaw and strong safety Evan Foster (combined: nine TFLs, 16 passes defensed) — are back, the rest of last year’s shaky unit is not. The safety unit is super-green after Foster.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisiana State
Christopher Fredrick (3) and McKinley Williams (98)
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Despite a large overall efficiency disadvantage, Syracuse mostly broke even in field position because of good special teams. Punter Sterling Hofrichter’s kicks were long (43.2-yard average) and mostly unreturnable, and Sean Riley is an excellent return man, and both are back.

Place-kicker Cole Murphy, however, is not. He was automatic inside of 40 yards (11-for-11) and solid beyond 40 (9-for-16), though he was asked to do way too much to salvage points for a bad red zone offense. Sixteen field goal attempts over 40 yards! That’s ridiculous.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Western Michigan 87 0.7 52%
8-Sep Wagner NR 41.4 99%
15-Sep Florida State 18 -10.4 27%
22-Sep Connecticut 124 16.7 83%
29-Sep at Clemson 3 -28.5 5%
6-Oct at Pittsburgh 45 -7.7 33%
20-Oct North Carolina 51 -1.9 46%
27-Oct N.C. State 37 -5.3 38%
3-Nov at Wake Forest 34 -10.4 27%
9-Nov Louisville 29 -7.3 34%
17-Nov vs. Notre Dame 7 -21.9 10%
24-Nov at Boston College 48 -7.1 34%
Projected S&P+ Rk 71
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 56 / 82
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.7 (73)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 58 / 58
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -12 / -6.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (59%, 68%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 3.8 (0.2)

It’s almost like you have to preview two different Syracuse teams here. One is the Dungey-led squad that could start the season, and one is the team that might finish with someone other than Dungey. The former has been decent under Babers; the latter has been awful.

That could change if DeVito is ready He is the future, and there’s a chance that future begins before 2019.

The primary goal has to be ending a four-year bowl drought. Any hope of that comes early. S&P+ projects the Orange just 71st thanks to the combination of turnover at WR and DB and late-year collapses; at that level, they are favored in just three games, and all three come in September. There will be home win opportunities against UNC, NC State, and Louisville later on, but reaching six wins will require at least a 3-1 start.

Odds aren’t in Cuse’s favor. It feels like Babers is doing a good job because of the two big wins, though it doesn’t seem like he’s got the depth to succeed yet. But you can start to see the pieces falling into place in 2019.

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