- After one big upset in each of Dino Babers’s first two years in charge, Syracuse doesn’t want to be just a flash in the national conversation anymore.
This is how Dino Babers would describe the culture of the program he built to someone completely unfamiliar with Syracuse football: “We’re not a millennial family, we’re an old-fashioned family,” Babers says. “We operate like we’re from the ’60s and ’70s when it comes to family.”
The Orange don’t have TV tray tables or transistor radios at their training table. It’s not like that. To get this rebuild going back when Babers was hired after the 2015 season, the culture change had to be more about accountability, consistency and building relationships.
“You’ve got a grandfather, a father, a mom and older brothers who tell the younger brothers what to do,” says Babers, the patriarch. “And everybody’s got to follow the family motto: Don’t embarrass the family.”
Syracuse has been anything but an embarrassment this season. After winning exactly four games for three consecutive seasons, the Orange have already doubled that total with an 8–2 record that has landed them at No. 12 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. After failing to win a game in November in Babers’s first two seasons and failing to make a bowl game since 2013, this team now finds itself closing in on the group of teams guaranteed entry to a New Year’s Six bowl. All Syracuse has to do is beat No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday in Yankee Stadium and take care of No. 20 Boston College on the road the following week. Simple.
“We understand the position we’re in and we’re all excited to finally make it past the point past teams couldn’t,” says junior defensive end Kendall Coleman. “But at the same time, that’s not good enough and we know that. So we’ll keep pushing and see where we can take this story. Then we’ll look back on it after the season and say, ‘O.K., that was great and next year we’ve gotta do more.’”
That sentiment is a far cry from the way things used to be. Syracuse had shown flashes of greatness under Babers but lacked sustained momentum. During his first year in 2016, the Orange upset No. 17 Virginia Tech, prompting Babers to produce a passionate postgame locker room speech that became the most viral moment of the season. In 2017, Syracuse shocked No. 2 Clemson in a program-defining win on a Friday night on national television.
Those teams lacked the consistency needed to keep winning. This year’s team, however, is different.
“Guys are really focused on the task of not being like those other teams,” Babers says. “Beating Virginia Tech and not having a winning season, beating Clemson, who goes into the final four [in 2017] and not having a winning season. They did not want to be like the 2016 and 2017 teams.”
If Syracuse scores one more touchdown and makes one stop in the final five minutes this September against Clemson or puts up a fight against Pitt’s run game (two Panthers rushed for more than 100 yards and three touchdowns), maybe this team would be undefeated heading into the season’s final two weeks. The Orange were 4–0 to start the season, then lost a 27–23 heartbreaker to Clemson and a 44–37 overtime shootout to Pitt despite leading to start the fourth quarter in both games.
“I wasn’t disappointed in the way our young men played and I didn’t think we were regressing into the old us,” Babers says.
What followed was a much-needed bye week. There wasn’t panic, but Babers and his staff put players through conditioning workouts that mirrored the preseason. Players didn’t exactly let on to just how challenging that week was, but Babers needed to get a point across.
“We had to let them know that although we’re really proud of how they played the first part of the season, by no means are we going to settle for that and we need to improve every week,” Babers says. “We made it extremely hard where people had to decide whether they were on the train or they wanted to get off the train. It was a difficult week.”
Syracuse hasn’t lost a game since. Perhaps that would have been the case regardless, but Babers wouldn’t underestimate that idle week. He also believes a team from a previous year might not have responded in the same way.
“I think this group is closer, this group cares more,” he says. “I think you needed the experiences of 2017, 2016, being a member of this team and to see that you could occasionally do some great things, but you weren’t doing a lot of consistently good things.”
Babers first started seeing a shift in February: a sharpened focus in meetings, players being on time, a deeper dedication to strength training and other off-field factors. It continued through the summer when team captains Eric Dungey, Chris Slayton and Sterling Hofrichter would send texts to announce mandatory player-only practices, sometimes late at night, which helped bring the new roster closer.
“You had players putting this on themselves and making sure the team was getting better,” said senior wide receiver Jamal Custis. “I think that’s when the culture changed.”
This year Syracuse has one Top 25 win (No. 22 NC State), a narrow loss to another ranked opponent (No. 3 Clemson), and two more opportunities for résumé-building victories these final two weeks. It’s taken work to get to a point where the Orange believe they can win every game, but now their swag mirrors their coach.
“At first I think there was some overall doubt whether we could or not,” Coleman says. “I think what really turned it this year what we had more guys on the field who thought that we could [compete] than guys who thought that we couldn’t.”
As it pertains to the current task at hand—Saturday’s game against the Fighting Irish, who are riding a fine can’t-lose line of their own—Syracuse doesn’t view this game as anything out of the ordinary. For Notre Dame, a loss puts a season of playoff hopes in peril. A year or two ago, this game might have been viewed as a bigger deal for the Orange, but inside the program they say it’s like any other week.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there counting us out and waiting for us to slip and fall because that’s what, quote unquote, Syracuse does, you know?” Coleman says. “But this is just the next one in line. This game could have come earlier in the season or it could have been the last one in the season. It’s still going to be a major game in defining who we are.”
If Syracuse can knock off Notre Dame, it’s a safe bet Babers will have another heartfelt, motivational and viral locker room speech prepared. He’s already looked at the odds stacked against his team.
“Vegas told everybody Notre Dame had an 86% chance of winning the game,” Babers says. “So that’s like the movie Dumb and Dumber. So you’re telling us that we have a chance, but the chance is only 14%. O.K., well we’ve got to find a way to see if we can go in there like David and hit them with a rock right between the middle of their forehead and find a chance to win.
“Nobody’s going to be betting on us, but we do have a chance, and it’s not much of a chance, is it?”