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Single-year surges are hard to sustain. What about Syracuse’s 10-win 2018?

Dino Babers’ Orange were one of college football’s happiest stories last fall, but you have to prove yourself all over again every year.

Syracuse v Wake Forest
Dino Babers
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

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

In 2001, winning 10 games felt pretty normal at Syracuse. For 15 seasons, since going 11-0-1 in 1987, the Orange had enjoyed relevance. Dick MacPherson seamlessly handed the baton to assistant Paul Pasqualoni. Syracuse — the Big East’s constant while Miami underwent turmoil and churn — finished ranked in 1987-88 (fourth in ‘87), 1991-92 (sixth in ‘92), and 1995-98. After a couple of downish years, they made another big run in 2001.

The 2001 offense was a shadow of its former self — there was no Donovan McNabb, no Marvin Harrison, not even a Qadry Ismail or Quinton Spotwood. Just R.J. Anderson and Troy Nunes (a magician, if you ask me) handing the ball to James Mungro and trying to give Dwight Freeney’s defense field position.

It mostly worked. The 2001 Orange only lost to three top-10 teams (Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and a murderous Miami), beat No. 5 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and finished 10-3 and 14th in the country after out-Bill Snydering Bill Snyder’s Kansas State, 26-3, in the Insight Bowl. Pretty good living.

Over the following decade and a half, Syracuse would forego its spot in the sport’s second tier. Pasqualoni won just 16 games in his last three years, and the school replaced him with Greg Robinson, one of the most disastrous hires of the 21st century.

Robinson won 10 games in four seasons. Even in Pasqualoni’s darkest days, the Orange never ranked below 70th in S&P+; Robinson’s teams averaged a ranking of 89.3. This allowed successor Doug Marrone to look like a miracle worker — and earn a pair of NFL head coaching jobs — simply by going 8-5 in 2010 and 2012. When he left to coach the Bills, defensive coordinator Scott Shafer replaced him but went 14-23. Then the school decided it wanted to actually score points and hired former Baylor assistant Dino Babers.

That’s a lot of lurching, searching for identity, and losing.

Under Babers, this proud program has taken on the feel of an upstart. For each of Babers’ three seasons, the Orange have improved almost universally.

  • Off. S&P+: from 64th under Shafer to 66th, then 57th, then 44th
  • Def. S&P+: from 101st under Shafer to 84th, then 66th, then 60th
  • Special Teams S&P+: from 86th under Shafer to 86th, then sixth, then second
  • Overall S&P+: from 86th under Shafer to 79th, then 56th, then 40th

In that third year, with much of the ACC disappointing, Syracuse took advantage.

The Orange blasted their first four opponents by an average of 50-20, then gave Clemson its final scare of the season on September 29. They let a late lead slip away in an overtime loss at Pitt the next week, but it was the only time Cuse would lose to a non-Playoff team. The Orange won six of their final seven games, falling only to Notre Dame in The Bronx, and finished by pummeling Boston College over Thanksgiving, then beating former conference rival West Virginia easily in the Camping World Bowl.

The end result: 10 wins and a top-15 finish for the first time since the Year of Mungro.

Granted, S&P+ thought of Syracuse as a product of its withering surroundings (plus about three points per game in turnovers luck) and not as a true top-15-caliber team. But after nearly two decades in the wilderness, this program has found itself again. And if it can survive a quarterback change, it could take long-term advantage of the ACC’s 2018 stumble.

Offense

Eric Dungey managed to leave both a legacy and a bar his successor can clear. Dungey was tough to the point of reckless, suffering countless injuries, and he was generally more efficient running than throwing. Syracuse rose only as high as 44th in Off. S&P+ with him as the field general. But damn, was he memorable. He hurled himself downfield to move the chains, won 10 games in 2018, beat Clemson in 2017, and — despite missing about a season’s worth of games over four years — finished his career with more than 9,000 passing yards.

Typically, when a program breaks through and then loses its star quarterback, fans rationalize that the corner has been turned and the next quarterback is going to be even better. (Everybody wave to 1998 Me, telling anybody who will listen about how, sure, Missouri lost star Corby Jones, but you just don’t understand how good Kirk Farmer will be. In fairness, I was only off in my “Mizzou could still win 10 games this year” prediction by eight years.)

In this case, saying such things could be realistic. At least, there are better odds than normal. Tommy DeVito, one of the most decorated recruits Babers has signed, takes over for Dungey after a hit-or-miss freshman campaign.

DeVito saw plenty of action last year, both in garbage time and while Dungey was banged up, and he oscillated between “yikes” (a combined 6-for-18 against WMU, Wagner, and UConn, then 14-for-31 with two picks against Notre Dame) and “there’s the upside” (22-for-35 for 325 yards, four TDs, and only one pick against FSU and UNC).

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame
Tommy DeVito
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

He inherits a receiving corps that returns three of last year’s four primary pieces. Jamal Custis was the big-play guy and will be missed, but efficiency man Sean Riley (64 receptions, 58 percent success rate) is back, and both sophomore Taj Harris and junior slot Nykeim Johnson (combined: 81 catches, 1,130 yards, seven TDs) hinted at explosiveness potential.

There’s reason to worry about depth — after this trio, the most proven wideout is sophomore Sharod Johnson, with seven career catches — but that’s a pretty good starting point.

Louisville v Syracuse
Nykeim Johnson
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Though Babers has heavy Bear Raid influences, his offense has evolved. Syracuse indeed spread defenses out as far as possible (17th in solo tackles created) and operated at the tempo you would expect (eighth in adjusted pace), but the Orange were in no way pass-heavy.

They ran 59 percent of the time on standard downs (1 percentage point below the national average) and 31 percent on passing downs (4 percentage points below). It was a precarious balance: the run provided far fewer negative plays (eighth in stuff rate, 93rd in sack rate), but the pass provided all the actually explosive plays.

Moe Neal’s efficiency made this attempt at balance mostly pay off. The senior from Gastonia, N.C., produced a 48 percent success rate with some degree of help from both a sturdy offensive line and Dungey’s own mobility.

DeVito was a pretty successful runner but didn’t do it much, and the line now has three starters to replace. Granted, three players with a combined 71 career starts do return up front (including 341-pound guard Evan Adams, a 2017 all-conference selection), but a couple of transfers — South Alabama tackle Ryan Alexander and JUCO transfer Darius Tisdale — might need to contribute quickly if Cuse is to continue its mostly glitch-free running.

Defense

Per S&P+, Syracuse’s offense has improved by about 2.1 adjusted points per game since Babers took over for Shafer. Despite each coach’s background, however, the defense has improved by nearly six adjusted points per game.

The Orange could stand to allow fewer big plays this year, but they have carved out an identity of disruption. They were 39th in marginal efficiency vs. 106th in marginal explosiveness. They were willing to give up some big plays in the name of forcing incompletions (22nd in completion rate allowed) and negative plays (21st in sacks).

Most of last year’s play-makers are back, though we shouldn’t underestimate some key departures in the linebacking corps. Ryan Guthrie was Syracuse’s sure thing last year, combining his QB-of-the-defense duties with 16.5 tackles for loss, and Kielan Whitner and Shyheim Cullen were each occasional play-makers as well. Senior Andrew Armstrong and sophomore Tyrell Richards are the only two returnees with any real experience.

North Carolina State v Syracuse
Alton Robinson
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

If turnover at LB doesn’t create too much instability, there’s a lot to like about the rest of the defense.

It starts at defensive end, where seniors Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are nightmarish on passing downs. The duo combined for 20 sacks, plus 34 run stuffs, and took advantage of nearly every glitch an opposing offensive tackle suffered. They are one of the best end duos in the country. (And for what it’s worth, Richards could be a hell of an alternative weapon from the weak side linebacker position — three of his 11.5 tackles last year were sacks.)

Tackle Chris Slayton is gone, but fourth-year coordinator Brian Ward still has three veterans in the middle, led by senior Kenneth Ruff.

Connecticut v Syracuse
Andre Cisco
Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Granted, a scary pass rush does your secondary massive favors, but no matter who gets the most credit, Syracuse DBs matched their defensive ends’ aggressiveness. Safety Andre Cisco was maybe the best ball-hawking safety in FBS, logging seven INTs and 11 breakups, and five other DBs made at least 4.5 havoc plays. Four of them return: safety Evan Foster (5.5 TFLs, five passes defensed), corners Christopher Fredrick and Ifeatu Melifonwu (combined: two TFLs, 13 PDs), and nickel and former star recruit Trill Williams (2.5 TFLs, two INTs).

The scariest part: Cisco, Melifonwu, and Williams were freshmen. In recruiting rankings, Syracuse has only slightly improved as the program’s stature has grown. That maybe eventually catches up to Babers, but his sophomore class is so promising on both sides of the ball that it might be a while.

Special Teams

Cisco might have been one of the five best freshmen in the country in 2018; he might not have been the best freshman named Andre on his own team, however.

Place-kicker Andre Szmyt was spectacular. Because of some red zone issues, he was asked to attempt a ridiculous 34 field goals and made 30 of them. He was 7-for-10 beyond 40 yards, too, and won the Lou Groza Award. In his first season of college football.

Syracuse v Wake Forest
Andre Szmyt
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Smzyt turned an already strong unit into an amazing one. Syracuse special teams was top-30 in every efficiency category, which is almost unheard of, and better yet, everyone’s back: Smzyt, punter Sterling Hofrichter, and Sean Riley, a good kick returner and amazing punt returner. Special teams units are flaky creatures, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than another top-10 unit for Babers.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Liberty 112 15.9 82%
7-Sep at Maryland 67 0.0 50%
14-Sep Clemson 3 -22.8 9%
21-Sep Western Michigan 75 7.6 67%
28-Sep Holy Cross NR 36.9 98%
10-Oct at N.C. State 47 -4.2 40%
18-Oct Pittsburgh 59 3.3 58%
26-Oct at Florida State 28 -8.8 31%
2-Nov Boston College 72 6.4 64%
16-Nov at Duke 65 -0.8 48%
23-Nov at Louisville 87 4.8 61%
30-Nov Wake Forest 62 4.0 59%
Projected S&P+ Rk 56
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 59 / 54
Projected wins 6.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 0.6 (70)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 54
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 13 / 5.5
2018 TO Luck/Game +2.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (55%, 71%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 8.5 (1.5)

Like Virginia and Pitt, Syracuse’s success was driven at least in part by an ACC that suddenly ... lacked in quality. In that sense, there’s reason to worry about the rest of the league catching back up, especially considering that S&P+, projects the Orange to slip to 56th overall.

That projected drop is driven primarily by two things: the loss of Dungey-to-Custis and the fact that S&P+ doesn’t look fondly at single-year leaps. A team sort of has to prove itself twice before S&P+ trusts it.

2019 is a pivotal year. At 56th, Syracuse is projected to play in EIGHT games decided by a touchdown or less. Everything from home games against WMU, Pitt, BC, and Wake Forest, to road games at Maryland, NC State, and Duke are up for grabs. Babers’ win totals have steadily overachieved their stats through the years, and maybe that’s a good sign for 2019 and beyond. But this is a year in which Cuse establishes itself as either a bowl-caliber program or something greater.

Signs point to the former, but until proved otherwise DeVito, Cisco, Smzyt, and a frankly amazing sophomore class have a chance at the latter, too.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.