SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The 2016 season marked the dawn of the Dino Babers era for the Syracuse Orange. Year one went exactly as Babers said it would. When he took the job, Babers said he has turned programs around before and knows how it works. In his experience, year one is filled with inconsistencies, high moments and down moments.
That is exactly what we saw to a T.
It was a roller coaster ride of a season that saw records smashed, key players go down with injuries, a major upset inside the Carrier Dome and many other interesting moments.
Records Were Made to be Broken
The following records were set by the 2016 Orange this season.
- Most receptions in a game (14, Ervin Philips vs Colgate, tied Art Monk)
- Receiving yards in a game (270, Amba Etta-Tawo vs UConn, passed Scott Schwedes)
- Completion percentage in a game (87% vs Colgate)
- Consecutive 100 yard receiving games (7, Etta-Tawo, passed Rob Moore and Marvin Harrison)
- Receiving touchdowns in a game (5, Etta-Tawo vs Pittsburgh, passed Tony Gabriel and Tommy Kane)
- Receptions in a season (94, Etta-Tawo)
- Receiving yards in a season (1,482, Etta-Tawo, passed Marvin Harrison)
- Receiving yards per game in a season (123.5, Etta-Tawo, passed Mike Williams)
- Touchdown receptions in a season (14, Etta-Tawo, passed Tommy Kane)
- Receptions by a junior (90, Philips, passed Art Monk)
- Plays in a game (105 vs South Florida)
- Touchdowns in a game (7, Zachary Mahoney vs Pittsburgh, passed Jim Brown)
- Passing touchdowns in a game (5, Mahoney vs Pittsburgh, tied Ryan Nassib)
- Consecutive 300-yard passing games (3, Eric Dungey, tied Ryan Nassib)
- Passing yards per game (297.7, Dungey, passed Ryan Nassib)
- Passing yards by a sophomore (2,679, Dungey, passed Ryan Nassib)
- Total yards allowed in a game (845 vs Louisville)
- Total offense by an individual opposing player (610, Lamar Jackson)
- Points allowed in a game (76 vs Pittsburgh)
- Rushing touchdowns allowed in a season (35)
- Yards allowed per play (6.9)
- Points allowed in a season (463)
A Star is Born
Amba Etta-Tawo came to Syracuse as an under the radar graduate transfer. Even the most optimistic of projections had him as a solid compliment to Syracuse's other receiving options. He came from Maryland with a reputation of being a speedster who struggled with drops.
Etta-Tawo worked hard during the offseason to correct that issue. When he arrived at training camp, it was a non-factor. He emerged as a legitimate threat, and burst onto the scene right away with a 12 catch, 210 yard, one touchdown performance against Colgate in the season opener.
His record setting season only continued from there.
Etta-Tawo had four games with double digit catches, seven 100-yard receiving games, two 200-yard receiving games, three games with more than one touchdown and set Syracuse records for receptions, yards and touchdowns in a season.
The combination of Etta-Tawo's size, speed and Dino Baber's system has turned him from a Maryland throw away to a bonafide NFL prospect.
Every season has its ups and downs, but the 2016 season ran the gamut of emotions. From a season opening victory, to back to back blowout losses afterwards, to an upset victory over nationally ranked Virginia Tech, to legitimate bowl talk after improving to 4-4, to a disappointing end of the season as the team was ravaged by injuries.
On the positive side, Dino Babers offense was as advertised. It was explosive, fast-paced, put defenses on their heals and produced a lot of entertaining moments. If not for subpar performances after starting quarterback Eric Dungey was lost to injury, the Orange may have set school records for points and yards in a season in addition to all of the other records.
On the negative side, the lack of depth throughout the roster was exposed as injuries mounted. Specifically on both the offensive and defensive line as well as in the secondary. Syracuse lost key contributors Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels early in the season. Senior offensive linemen Jason Emerich and Omari Palmer missed several games as well.
Maybe most notably was the loss of Eric Dungey, who left early in the game against Clemson and did not see the field for the final three games. That thwarted an offense that had put up monster numbers to that point.
Syracuse simply was not equipped with the roster constructed as it was to overcome losing all of those players. Even with that, they were only one game away from a bowl berth.
Rock You Like a Hurricane
Before the season began, one of the games circled as a very winnable contest was the road trip to face Wake Forest. The teams are evenly matched, and Syracuse's up-tempo offense seemed to give them an edge on paper. But Mother Nature put her own spin on the game, as a hurricane swept through the state of North Carolina.
The Orange and Demon Deacons played in a torrential downpour and gusty winds that severely impacted Syracuse's ability to run its offense in a normal capacity. The result was a nine point offensive output in a 19 point loss. If the game were played in better conditions, would Syracuse have pulled that game out?
Many Orange fans certainly think so.
The Upset Heard Round the World
Syracuse had their moment in the sun this season. Something that has not been said about the Orange program in a positive manner in several years. Not only did Syracuse dominate a very good Virginia Tech team on its way to a 31-17 upset victory over the then 17th ranked Hokies, but Dino Babers gave a post-game locker room speech for the ages.
Go ahead, click the link above and watch it before continuing. I'll wait.
Done? Oh you want to go watch it again? Alright. Go ahead.
Ready to continue now? Still gives you chills, right? Yeah, that was a pretty cool moment for the Orange program.
That video went viral and was picked up by every major news outlet the following week. It led to Dino Babers appearances on SportsCenter, nationally syndicated radio shows discussing the speech, constant re-airs of the video, and a College Game Day segment that featured Syracuse.
It was a great moment on the field and maybe an even better one off of it.
Oh That Tampa-2
Many Syracuse fans have expressed consternation over the Orange defense this season, and some of it is warranted. No one wants to set a record for points allowed in a season. Not the Syracuse defensive players. Not the defensive assistants. And certainly not defensive coordinator Brian Ward.
But how about some context?
Syracuse suffered significant injuries to the secondary as noted above. Losing Cordy so early in the season was a killer. He was easily the Orange's most versatile and best defensive back. He runs the best out of any safety on the roster.
Not having his toughness, playmaking ability and speed in the back end of that defense killed the Orange throughout the 2016 campaign.
Losing players like Cordell Hudson for multiple games and Juwan Dowels for the season impacted the depth in the secondary. Defensive tackle Steven Clark missed games at the end of the year due to injury, hurting SU along the defensive line.
Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett, two defensive leaders, were both at significantly less than 100% against the Panthers.
As the season wore on, more and more true freshmen were forced into action. That is a tough spot for any defense.
Consider this. Seven true freshmen played on defense in the season finale.
But let's look at more than just injuries. Despite that, the Syracuse defense actually played some quality football. Look at the win over Virginia Tech where they held a team that averaged 35 points per game to just 17. That's less than half of their season average.
More context. Syracuse had to face four top 17 scoring offenses this season, including three in the top 10. They were No. 1 Louisville (45.3 points per game), No. 8 South Florida (43.6), No. 10 Pittsburgh (42.3) and No. 17 Clemson (40.0). For a defense learning a new system with a long of inexperience and depth issues at multiple positions, that is a difficult hill to climb.
In those four games, the Orange defense gave up 59 points and 627 yards per game. Those are ugly numbers. But, in the other eight games, the Syracuse defense showed promise. They gave up just 28 points and 438 yards per game. That's a difference of 31 points and nearly 200 yards.
And, those numbers actually include defensive and special teams touchdowns. If you take out special teams touchdowns by Boston College, USF and Notre Dame as well as a defensive touchdown by Wake Forest, the defense in those eight games actually gave up only 25 points per game.
So is the Syracuse defense ready to compete with those elite offenses? Clearly not. Is it as bad as it seemed against Pittsburgh when looking at the context and some of the statistics? It is not.
Keep in mind that in Babers' final year at Bowling Green, the Falcons were in the top 40 in yards per play allowed and top 15 in turnover margin nationally. Syracuse could take a significant jump in year two on the defensive side of the ball, and may need to in order to get back to postseason play.
But the numbers in those eight games and what was done at Bowling Green are encouraging for the future.
So Close, Yet So Far
Syracuse finished the season 4-8 after losing to Pittsburgh in the highest scoring FBS game in college football history. The teams totaled 137 points as the Panthers won 76-61. There was over 1,200 yards of total offense combined, and big plays by both teams throughout.
But finished 4-8 will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the Orange. They were just one game away from 5-7, which, as it turns out, would have given Syracuse a bowl bid. That would have meant 15 more practices and more exposure for the program.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Syracuse fans will think back to the 17-0 lead they had on South Florida after one quarter of play, only to score just three more points in the final three quarters. What if there was not a hurricane in North Carolina and Syracuse faced Wake Forest under better conditions?
What if the Syracuse defense was a bit healthier down the stretch and Dungey did not suffer the injury against Clemson?
So many what if scenarios that lead to Syracuse going bowling. Unfortunately for the Orange, they cannot live in those scenarios. Reality is 4-8 and missing the postseason.
Looking Towards the Future
Year one was a success under Dino Babers. Yes the 4-8 record could have been better. Without some extenuating circumstances, it would have been better. It was much closer to a bowl bid than the record alone would suggest.
Think about, however, what they accomplished? Syracuse made themselves a national story with the upset win and Babers' speech. They showed flashes on both sides of the ball that can be used as evidence to show the systems work. They can be used in recruiting to tell talented prospects that things will get better with them in the mix.
The Orange showed every wide receiver prospect that this system will allow them to put up numbers, be extremely productive, and give themselves a shot at the professional level.
Syracuse had significant wins on the recruiting trail, landing an Elite 11 quarterback who was one of the hottest prospects int he country over the summer.
All of these things create positive exposure for the program and give hope for the future under coach Babers.