Wish I could tell Syracuse fans the Orange hit rock bottom with last week’s loss to a Liberty University team that seemingly joined the ranks of major college football just five minutes ago. But truth be told, things could get even uglier Saturday when Cuse visits Clemson University in the pit known as Death Valley.
On the same day SU was being schooled by an upstart program, the top-ranked Tigers were obliterating Georgia Tech, 73-7, in a game that wasn’t even that close. Trevor Lawrence, the Heisman Trophy favorite and future quarterback of the hapless New York Jets, had five touchdown passes and nearly 400 passing yards in the first half alone. The outcome was decided so quickly that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney allowed his punter to briefly play quarterback (he completed 2 of 3 passes) and one of his defensive tackles to line up at fullback (he rushed for a touchdown.)
The wizards of odds installed the Tigers as 44.5-point favorites, and the line might be too small, considering the roll Clemson’s on and the sorry state of the black-and-blue Orange, which has lost a total of 15 front-line players to either injury or COVID opt-outs. Quarterback Tommy DeVito and All-American safety Andre Cisco are among the MIAs.
Not surprisingly, SU fans, including some former Orange football players, are calling for coach Dino Babers to be fired. Their wishes aren’t going to be granted. Nor should they be. At least not yet.
Babers’ contract reportedly runs through the 2023 season, and, unlike many major football factories, Syracuse doesn’t have uber-rich sugar-daddy boosters willing to fork over millions for coaching buyouts. The pandemic has severely drained coffers at SU and every other college, and the economic ramifications go well beyond sports. There are schools that won’t weather the financial destruction wrought by COVID. The harshest estimates have 20 percent of all colleges eventually going belly-up.
So Babers will get a pass this season. But next year will be a different story. Dino will need to deliver.
Those stunning upsets of Clemson, Virginia Tech and Florida State, and that 10-win season in 2018 seem like ancient history now. As do those spirited “Whose house? Our house!” post-game Babers speeches that went viral. Since those halcyon times, the Orange men have gone from our house to the penthouse to the outhouse. Just as he did when he took over this moribund program five years ago, Babers is preaching belief without evidence, having faith in things unseen. That blind faith was rewarded when the Orange finished 15th in the national polls two years ago. But that season — the only winning record Babers has posted at SU — now feels like a fluke.
Clemson is a roaring locomotive. Syracuse is an old jalopy stuck on the tracks, hoping not to get bashed in two. And the pain won’t stop with the Clemson game. In fact, there’s a good chance the Orange won’t win again this season, meaning Babers could join Greg Robinson as the only coaches to have guided SU to double-digit losses. Robinson, sadly, did it twice.
Patience can be a virtue. And sometimes belief without evidence is warranted. History reminds us that neither Ben Schwartzwalder nor Dick MacPherson started auspiciously, but were given plenty of time by their athletic directors to get things right. Babers is 24-30 heading into the sixth game of his fifth season. Ol’ Ben was 29-24-1 at a similar stage, while Coach Mac was 25-28-1. There’s a chance the situation could improve dramatically for Babers next season. Because of the pandemic, this year’s seniors will have the option of another year of eligibility. Transfers may be allowed to play immediately, thanks to a proposed one-time-only NCAA waiver. On paper, Babers has the makings of one of his best recruiting classes. And according to a Sports Illustrated survey of incoming SU recruits over the weekend, virtually every one of them said the 1-4 start has no bearing on the verbal commitments they’ve given the Orange. This means Babers could field one of the largest and most experienced rosters in school history in 2021.
In the meantime, Syracuse fans will have to grin and bear it, because there are no quick solutions and athletic director John Wildhack isn’t going to fire Babers. Unless several of the inexperienced underclassmen come through in a big way, 2020 will continue to be a lost season. The worst throttling could come Saturday. In case you’re wondering, the most lopsided defeat in SU’s storied 130-year football history was a 71-0 loss to Union in 1891. That record may be in jeopardy.
These Bills are not elite. Nor are they the same old Bills. As decisive back-to-back losses to Kansas City and Tennessee showed us, they’re somewhere in the middle. Buffalo’s inability to stop the run and establish a run game of its own are disconcerting. As is Josh Allen’s recent reversion to bad habits.
Run-clogging tackle Star Lotulelei, who took a coronavirus opt-out before the season, has been missed. His absence, along with that of injured linebacker Matt Milano, was exploited by the Chiefs, who, despite a hodge-podge line, pummeled the Bills for 245 yards on 46 carries, continuing a gashing trend begun by the Titans in a blowout victory against Buffalo the week before. After completing 71 percent of his passes and throwing 12 touchdowns and one interception to start the season, Allen has connected on just 58 percent of his throws and has four touchdown passes and three picks the past two games. He’d be helped if someone other than him could gain some meaningful yards running the ball.
The good news is the Bills travel to the Jersey swamplands Sunday to play the winless Jets. This will be an excellent opportunity to reboot before home games against the struggling New England Patriots and Super Bowl-contending Seattle Seahawks. The Bills remain in decent position to win the AFC East, but unless they find a way to run and stop the run and throw the ball the way they did the first four games, don’t expect a long run in the playoffs.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.