Dino Babers is once again calling for faith among the Syracuse University football fanbase, asking for “belief without evidence,” that the Orange can turn the disappointment of its third one-win campaign in 72 years into something special.
Syracuse is a week removed from finishing the season with a 1-10 overall record and 1-9 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference for its worst showing since 2005, and only the second campaign since 1948 with just one victory.
Babers, who has completed his fifth season at the helm, said during his final weekly zoom conference Nov. 30 that he believes the young, undermanned unit developed insurmountably throughout a season thrown out of whack from the onset by key injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is just two years past a 10-3 season under Babers in 2018.
“I think we’re going through this for a reason, and we’re going to turn a negative into a positive,” Babers said. “The thing that I want is that when the positive happens, remember this negative, so you can balance out the teeter totter and feel a lot better about some of the stuff that’s going on here. If these guys hang around, and academically they should, they should do nothing but be better.”
Syracuse seemingly lost a significant contributor at every turn during the early portion of the season, ultimately playing most of the year without starting quarterback Tommy DeVito due to a leg injury. Star defensive players from the secondary, Andre Cisco and Trill Williams, each opted out and declared for the NFL Draft after suffering their own season-ending injuries, just to highlight a few of the pivotal personnel members lost for much of the year.
That prompted Babers and Co. to launch an unplanned youth movement, playing most of the schedule with 72 percent of its roster within its first two years of eligibility, the fourth-highest mark among FBS teams. The Orange also was forced to start a program-record six freshmen on defense for its final two games after entering the season with a previous high of four.
Williams became the first player to score a touchdown off an interception of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and was consistently among the highest-graded cover corners each week by Pro Football Focus College.
Tucker closed the year with a 101-yard rushing performance against second-ranked Notre Dame, whose run defense ranked fourth nationally without yielding a single 100-yard rusher entering the game. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound halfback finished with 626 rushing yards on 137 carries, posting the third-highest yardage total by a freshman in school history. He was the second freshman for SU, behind all-time leading rusher Joe Morris, to produce at least three 100-yard outings on the ground.
The Orange also unearthed a rising linebacker corps. Sophomore Mikel Jones led the ACC with four interceptions and forced three fumbles to pace the SU defense that forced 24 takeaways to lead the FBS. Jones also tallied a team-best 69 tackles and shined alongside freshman linebacker Stefon Thompson.
The young SU players and Babers all hope to continue building momentum with a full offseason after the COVID-19 pandemic cut last spring short just a few practice sessions in under new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and first-year defensive coordinator Tony White.
“We’ve got to put on weight,” Garrett Williams said. “We’re really undersized at a lot of positions because we’re all young, we’ve only been in the weight room here for a year, some of us not even a year yet, so it’s really just putting on weight and looking the part to be able to match the physicality since we’re already matching people athletically and things like that.”
The SU underclassmen development was complemented by the consistency of key veterans, namely redshirt junior cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu and junior wide receiver Taj Harris.
Harris finished with 58 catches for 733 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 10 games, excelling through a quarterback carousel that turned from DeVito to senior Rex Culpepper to true freshman JaCobian Morgan, and back to Culpepper through a rash of injuries to the position. Harris will enter next season tied with Marvin Harrison for sixth in SU history with 135 career catches.
Senior offensive tackle Airon Servais and redshirt senior defensive lineman Josh Black each announced their plans to return for an added year of eligibility next season, which along with the return of DeVito and the rest of the offensive line that was expected to start in 2020, should create a stable veteran group if it can remain healthy.
“I think this year is more an evaluation of personnel,” Babers said. “We wanted to get a fascinating look at our personnel, all the way across the board, and take this last part of 2020 and beginning of 2021 to regroup, refocus, to not necessarily reinvent the wheel, but we need to come back out with a much more condensed and concentrated package of what we want to do and how we want to do it.”
The biggest accomplishment for SU this season was not lost on Babers and his players, which was simply putting itself in position to suit up for each game amid the COVID-19 pandemic despite its plethora of unrelated injuries coinciding with the outside circumstances.
Entering the week, SU was one of 10 teams nationally to complete 11 games, which includes only two other squads from Power-Five conferences. Syracuse and Boston College were the only two ACC teams to play their schedule uninterrupted.
Syracuse players sat out practice on multiple occasions during preseason training camp while their leadership counsel met with Babers and SU officials regarding coronavirus testing concerns. They eventually prompted SU athletic director John Wildhack to urge the ACC to increase its weekly testing protocol, which was achieved prior to the season kicking off.
“You just got to be prepared for whatever you face,” SU senior wide receiver Nykeim Johnson said of the past season. “Adversity happens all the time, you just got to learn how to bounce back so with that being said, us not having the kind of season we wanted, it was an adversity kind of year and we have to fight and make sure we come back next year strong.”