At ground level, another construction job continues inside the Dome as Syracuse University football coach Dino Babers attempts to build on the foundation he laid the previous two seasons. A dilapidated football program that won just 48 of 131 games before Babers’ arrival knocked off defending national champion Clemson in 2018, then posted a 10-3 record and a No. 15 ranking in the national polls last year.
The “faith without evidence” Babers asked of fans had been rewarded as the charismatic coach made believers of skeptics. Orange football fans, a notoriously apathetic lot, have spoken with their wallets this offseason to the tune of more than 7,000 new season-ticket sales as expectations soar higher than that skyscraping crane.
The reconstruction of SU football, like the reconstruction of the Dome, is far from done. Priority No. 1: Prove last season was the new normal and not a fluke.
“We don’t want to be occasionally great,’’ Babers says as he prepares for his fourth season as Orange head coach. “We want to be consistently good.”
Tommy DeVito, the new starting quarterback with the golden arm and limitless potential, goes a step further. “Last year, 10 wins, that’s going to be the standard,’’ he says. “And we hope to exceed that this year.”
And to think, before last season some wondered if Babers was just another coach full of hot air and false promises after consecutive 4-8 seasons that saw the Orange start fast only to crawl to the finish line with winless Novembers.
Pundits, as well as Babers’ peers, clearly have taken notice of the extreme makeover occurring on the hill far above Onondaga’s waters, with the Orange opening this season ranked 22nd in both the writers’ and coaches’ polls. Despite the lake-effect snow being dumped on the parade by the Las Vegas odds-makers who have put SU’s over-under win total at just 5.5, there is justifiable cause for optimism. The roster Babers has assembled is far superior to the one he inherited, and his offense, defense and special teams appear ready to operate at the breakneck speed he boldly predicted they would at his first press conference in 2016 when he painted a vivid word picture of the program’s future.
At the Aug. 31 season opener at Liberty University, SU will field a lineup featuring two first-team All-Americans (safety Andre Cisco and kicker Andre Szmyt) who dazzled as freshmen, and two All-Atlantic Coast Conference pass rushers (Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman) who had 10 sacks apiece a year ago. The running back and wide receiving corps are deep and blessed with game-changing speed. How well and quickly the offensive line and linebacking unit come together could determine the Orange’s fate. But the biggest key will be DeVito’s ability to replace Eric Dungey. No small task, considering the departed dual-threat quarterback accounted for 33 touchdowns last season and set or tied 25 school records during his collegiate career.
We saw flashes of brilliance during DeVito’s redshirt freshman season when he came off the bench to replace an injured Dungey and saved the day and the season by igniting wins against Florida State and North Carolina. We also witnessed some rough patches, particularly during his relief effort against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, in which he threw two interceptions in a 36-3 loss.
There are sure to be more thrilling moments, as well as growing pains, as the only consensus four-star recruit on SU’s roster tries to build on last year’s turning-point season.
Dungey was a bigger and more versatile quarterback—an elusive and punishing runner who rushed for 754 yards and 15 TDs. DeVito is more of a pro-style pocket passer, who actually is better suited to the up-tempo offense Babers prefers. He has a quicker release and is more accurate than his predecessor. He’ll be leaving the running to the backs, and that’s a good option because senior Moe Neal and Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams both have the ability to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
It won’t take long to see if the Orange is ready to meet or exceed its lofty, new standards. After road games at Liberty and Maryland—games in which SU will be favored—it’s back to the Dome to play college football’s standard-bearer. That would be Clemson, SU’s ACC Atlantic rival and the defending national champion. The Tigers are one of those rare programs that reloads. Leading the way is Trevor Lawrence, a 6-foot-6, rocket-armed sophomore quarterback who carved up Alabama in the 2018 title game and may have been the NFL’s No. 1 pick last April had he been eligible for the draft.
The Orange probably will enter the Clemson game as three-touchdown underdogs, but the veteran SU players won’t pay any heed. They remember how they upset the Tigers on national television in the Dome two years ago. And they can’t forget how they came within an illegal man downfield penalty of knocking them off last season in Death Valley, a place Clemson rarely loses. Those two performances were good measuring sticks because in Babers’ first game against Clemson three years ago, his team was squashed, 54-0.
As if the Orange needed any other emotional boosts, the game will be played on homecoming weekend on national television with Tim Green’s number being retired and the 1959 national championship team honored. Were SU able to pull off another upset, Orange fans will depart the Dome feeling even higher than that crane.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.