Syracuse's Dino Babers facing uphill task
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) In his first public appearance as Syracuse's new football coach, Dino Babers didn't make any bold proclamations. Just a plea for fan support.
''We're not going to make promises, but if you have faith and fill this place ... you're going to see something you've never seen before,'' Babers said in January to a Carrier Dome basketball crowd of nearly 27,000. ''We will win!''
To be certain, the 54-year-old Babers, the fourth coach in seven years at Syracuse, faces a tall task.
Syracuse won just seven games the past two seasons under Scott Shafer and is looking for a way to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference with the likes of Florida State and national runner-up Clemson. The Orange was 4-8 in Shafer's third and final season.
Since the turn of this century, bright spots have been fleeting for the Orange. The program hasn't been nationally ranked since 2001 under Paul Pasqualoni and still is struggling to emerge from a low point reached under Greg Robinson - his 10-37 record from 2005-08 represents the worst four-year stretch in school history.
The Syracuse program has regularly has had its ups and downs. The trick is to start trending upward in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
''We just want to try and make sure we get better every day,'' Babers said after spring ball. ''And hopefully by getting better somewhere, when the season ends we're good enough.''
Syracuse opens the season against longtime upstate New York foe Colgate, which won the Patriot League last season, made the FCS playoffs, and figures to offer a stiff first test. The Orange has sometimes struggled in the past against FCS teams. A fortunate one-point win over Villanova two years ago serves as a reference.
Other things to know about the Syracuse Orange:
Babers spent 25 years as an assistant coach, including four seasons at Baylor under Art Briles, and is incorporating Baylor's up-tempo spread with pro-style principles. As head coach at Bowling Green prior to coming to Syracuse, his team ranked fourth in the nation in total offense, averaging 561 yards. Anything approaching that would be a triumph. Syracuse was outgained 5,262-3,839 last season and averaged 5.1 yards per play while allowing 6.2.
Babers has instituted a whole new way of life for the Orange players - from diets to hydration to conditioning - to help them adjust to the speedy tempo of play his teams are known for. What he can't completely control is the health of his quarterbacks, though he can try to alter their risk taking. Eric Dungey (1,298 yards passing and 351 rushing) emerged as a solid leader as a freshman after replacing senior starter Terrel Hunt, whose career ended with an injury in last season's opener.
Dungey was at the top of the depth chart in preseason ball, but in his rearview mirror is at least one concussion suffered early in his first season and several other hard hits to the head that forced him to miss four games. Walk-on Zack Mahoney was the main man in relief, redshirt junior Austin Wilson has limited experience and newcomer Rex Culpepper missed his senior season in high school because of a knee injury suffered a year ago.
Syracuse has three solid returning players in Jordan Fredericks, George Morris, and Dontae Strickland, along with a newcomer with real promise in Moe Neal. Fredericks led the Orange with 607 yards rushing, Morris chipped in 326, and Neal shined in the spring scrimmage and has continued to surge in preseason practice. Dontae Strickland is a dual-threat guy who also displayed promise as a freshman.
The Orange has talent at wideout. Steve Ishmael led the way last year (39 catches for 570 yards and seven TDs), followed by Brisly Estime (293 yards on 17 catches with two TDs), and Ervin Philips (29 catches for 286 and five TDs). The versatile Philips also rushed for 234 yards and three scores.
Syracuse has a challenging schedule, but at least three of the games are at home: Louisville, Florida State and Pittsburgh. The Orange plays Notre Dame at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey and also travels to Clemson. The Orange finished 2-6 in the division last season, ahead of Boston College (0-8) and Wake Forest (1-7). Look for the Orange to win six games and move up a rung in the division.
Online: Associated Press College Football Website: www.collegefootball.ap.org
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