SYRACUSE — As college football teams around the country wake up this morning, anxiously awaiting their bowl destinations, Syracuse University finds itself in the all-too familiar role of outside observer.
The Orange’s season was often captivating — from an early-season quarterback change sparking a seismic philosophical shift and a historic rushing attack to the series of tight, thrilling games — but it again ended in agony, reigniting a sense of unrest among the SU fan-base.
For all that was accomplished by record-setting running back Sean Tucker and the Orange, ending 5-7 overall a year after going 1-10, the unsatisfying finish has brought about a heightened sense of urgency for Babers after failing to reach a bowl game for the third straight season and the fifth time in his six-year tenure.
“I’m ready to get going, ready to build, there were a lot of times it was tough throughout the year because we see what we can do and we’re just not there yet,” said SU quarterback Garrett Shrader, following the Nov. 27 season-ending loss to Pittsburgh.
“That was the most frustrating thing to me, we’re trying to figure out how to win games and put it together, but the potential is there, and we’ll come back next year with high heat.”
Syracuse ended on a three-game losing streak to fall short of its first bowl berth since 2018, getting blown out in back-to-back weeks off a bye at Louisville and North Carolina State before suffering a final 31-17 setback to Pittsburgh in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack confirmed two days later that Babers will return for a seventh season next year but turned up the heat by laying out bowl-game expectations.
The Orange was initially boosted by the move from starting quarterback Tommy DeVito to Shrader four games in, sparking a ground attack focused on Tucker and his new dual-threat complement.
The Orange finished the regular season second in the Atlantic Coast Conference for rushing (213 yards per game) and total defense (330.3), ranking in the top 25 nationally in each category, but a bottom-10 FBS pass offense and untimely defensive breakdowns halted the team’s momentum.
“I think that we’ve got a defense that can play, we have to be more consistent, I think we found a rushing attack,” Babers said after the Pitt setback. “I think we need to have an opportunity to be able to throw the ball to match that so that we can be more balanced and unpredictable.”
PROLIFIC GROUND GAME
Tucker finished with 1,496 rushing yards to rank fourth in the FBS and establish a new single-season record for SU, topping the previous mark held by Joe Morris since 1979.
He compiled a team-record nine 100-yard rushing outings and garnered All-ACC first team accolades. In an early-season breakout against FCS Albany, the second-year freshman became the first player in team history to record 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game while scoring five TDs, one shy of Jim Brown’s SU record from 1956.
“For me personally, it was definitely an improvement, so I got to take that and getting into the offseason I just got to start working hard and preparing for that,” Tucker said.
Shrader ran for 781 yards, which was 33 behind Bill Hurley for the most in a season by an SU quarterback, and he ran for 14 TDs to mark the most ever by an SU signal-caller.
The duo scored 14 touchdowns apiece to tie for third in the ACC and prompted Babers to alter his offense on the fly. The QB change also led to the departure of DeVito via the transfer portal, while former star wide receiver Taj Harris also left the team via transfer soon after the shift to a run-heavy approach.
The Orange took fans on an emotional mid-season roller coaster to begin Shrader’s tenure as starter.
Syracuse played in a memorable team-record five straight games decided by seven points or less, starting with a 24-21 victory over Liberty on Sept. 24 and capped off with a 41-36 win at Virginia Tech on Oct. 23.
The Orange suffered three straight losses in between, all by three points with the decisive score tallied or potentially altered by a field goal attempt in the final minute.
Last season, only two of SU’s 10 losses were within single digits.
“We’re disappointed, the goal is to win every game, but we were competitive, there is definitely a silver lining and a lot of good stuff that we did,” Shrader said. “We were competitive with good teams and played really hard, we just have to continue to grow and find out how to finish them.”
EYES ON 2022
With Babers confirmed to be back for next season, looming offseason questions begin with changes to his coaching staff, namely the vacancy at offensive coordinator.
Syracuse is likely to be active in the transfer portal with players both coming and going — tight end Luke Benson and defensive back Adrian Cole have each announced plans to transfer this week — and eligible potential pro prospects like star linebacker Mikel Jones still have decisions to consider.
The Orange could potentially return as many as 18 starters led by a premier play-maker, assuming Tucker isn’t tempted to transfer, and Babers placed rediscovering a complementary passing attack among the top priorities to push for the postseason after a step forward this year.
“You can’t say it’s a success if you don’t have a winning season,” said SU leading wide receiver Courtney Jackson. “That’s the goal at the beginning of the season, obviously it’s better than last year, but I think we’re still frustrated and disappointed and feel like we underachieved, and we have to continue to get better in every aspect of the game.”