In a year unlike no other, one thing remained the same: Syracuse Football struggled. This season, the Orange took those struggles to a whole new low, finishing with a 1-10 record following their 45-21 loss at the hands of Notre Dame on Saturday. Syracuse finished with a 1 win season for the first time since 2005 during the dreaded Greg Robinson era. It’s hard to believe this team is where it’s at right now considering just 2 years ago, the Orange finished 15th in the country following a Camping World Bowl victory over West Virginia. It was Syracuse’s first bowl win since 2013 when they defeated Minnesota in the Texas Bowl, led by Orange quarterback Terrel Hunt. The 10 win season in 2018 gave Syracuse fans a false hope that this team was finally rounding the corner and becoming a contender. Fans had high expectations for the team going forward, as the highly touted recruit Tommy DeVito was set to take over for senior Eric Dungey at the quarterback position. The 2019 season tempered those expectations and brought fans back to reality. Syracuse finished 5-7, which was the third-worst record in the ACC. Fans were let down after the team failed to meet the expectations set for them. The narrative that Syracuse football was inferior to Syracuse basketball was back after a one-year break, leaving fans once again asking, “Is it basketball season yet?”. The Orange took many big blows in the offseason as well. Standout wide receiver Trishton Jackson departed for the draft. Key starters including RB Moe Neal, linebackers Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams, defensive ends Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman, and safety Evan Foster (among many other players) all graduated. Everyone had given up hope for the team in 2020, figuring they’d continue to be towards the basement of the ACC. Not only did Syracuse become a bottom-feeder in the ACC this season, but they also became one of the worst teams in Power 5 football (ACC, SEC, PAC-12, BIG 10, and BIG 12). Syracuse was decimated by opt-outs due to the pandemic, as well as injuries. They were forced to start the season on their third-string running back after Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard opted out. Starting quarterback Tommy Devito injured his leg in a loss to Duke, ending his junior season. Preseason All-American Andre Cisco suffered an ACL injury after colliding with teammate Ed Hendrix prior to their contest against Georgia Tech. Cisco, a ball-hawking safety who picked off 13 passes in his collegiate career (22 games), then declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, ending his tenure with the Syracuse program. Fellow defensive back Trill Williams followed in the footsteps of Cisco, as he decided to forgo the final four games of his junior year and declare for the draft after sustaining an injury. Essentially almost everything that could have gone wrong for the Orange this season, did go wrong. Here’s a look back on this forgettable season.
BEST GAME: Win vs Georgia Tech
As the only win of the season, there is no other candidate for the best game of the year. ‘Cuse defeated Georgia Tech and freshman quarterback Jeff Sims 37-20 in the Orange’s first game in the newly renovated Carrier Dome. Sims threw four interceptions, one of which was lateralled by Ja’Had Carter to Trill Williams for a touchdown in what was a bizarre play for Syracuse. Fourth string freshman running back Sean Tucker broke out with 122 yards and 2 touchdowns on 24 carriers, which cemented his role as the lead running back for the rest of the season. Little did fans know at the time that this would be the only win they would experience all season.
WORST GAME: Loss vs Liberty
There are ten potential games that could have been chosen for this award, but two stick out like a sore thumb compared to the rest: the losses to Liberty and Louisville. The loss to Louisville was as ugly as it gets, considering it was the largest margin of defeat for Syracuse and the only time they were shut out all season, and this came against one of the worst ACC teams. But I have to give the upper hand to the game against Liberty, as it was just sheer dominance by the Flames, a team that didn’t compete in the FBS until 2018. It was Syracuse’s fourth loss to a non-power conference team since 2009 and their first since a 30-23 loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2017. Liberty steamrolled the Orange defense, putting up 520 total yards of offense and 338 on the ground. The Flames made Syracuse look like the team that had been playing FBS football for just 3 years as opposed to the one that plays in the ACC. This may go down as one of the worst losses in the team’s 131-year history.
OFFENSIVE MVP: Sean Tucker
It’s hard to pick a player for this award on a team that ranked 125th out of 127 FBS teams offensively, but I’ll go with Sean Tucker. Tucker, a true freshman, came to Syracuse this season with the likely intention that he would not play and redshirt the year. He was initially slotted to be the fourth-string running back behind Adams, Howard, and Jawhar Jordan, but after the top two running backs Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard opted out, Tucker became the lead back. Sean carried 114 times for 525 yards and 3 touchdowns, while never losing a fumble. Tucker became the only running back to rush for over 70 yards against Notre Dame, as he racked up 113 yards against the Irish (teammate Cooper Lutz also joined him, as he went over 70 yards as well). Tucker also had to run behind one of the worst offensive lines in the nation, which gave up 38 sacks. The strong performance of Tucker in 2020 will give the coaching staff a difficult decision on what to do at running back with Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard added back into the mix next season.
DEFENSIVE MVPs: Garrett Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu
Williams and Melifonwu were one of the best cornerback duos in the country, but they received very little national media attention due to the fact they were on a one-win team. It’s easy to view the Orange’s 1-10 record and make an assumption that they lacked any stars whatsoever, but those who followed the program would know how well these two played. The Orange had a hole to fill at cornerback following the graduation of Christopher Fredrick, but Garrett Williams filled in better than expected. The redshirt freshman, who was seldomly used on special teams last season, became an integral part of the Syracuse defense in 2020. Williams broke up 7 passes and tallied two interceptions, including a pick-six against Trevor Lawrence. Williams became the only player to return one of Lawrence’s interceptions for a touchdown. Melifonwu, a redshirt junior that has been a starter at cornerback since last season, continued to impress. Many expect Iffy to forgo his senior year and declare for the NFL Draft. Melifonwu tallied one interception and defended eight passes. While Melifonwu does not have eye-popping interception numbers, he does have tantalizing size and physical traits. His 6’3″ frame, incredible length, and athleticism, as well as his hard tackling, should impress scouts. Sports Illustrated listed Ifeatu as the number three NFL draft prospect on the Orange prior to this season. Melifonwu and Williams played a lot of man to man defense under Tony White’s 3-3-5, and the duo excelled. Neither corner had allowed a touchdown until the second to last game of the season. Garrett and Iffy were first and second in the nation in targets without allowing a touchdown until the game against NC State. If Melifonwu returns next season, the Orange will have both of their shutdown corners back, who will look to gain more national recognition.
BEST PLAY: Ja’Had Carter/Trill Williams Pick 6
Not often do you see a lateral in the middle of a football game, nor do you see a lateral on an interception go for a touchdown. With eight and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter, Georgia Tech QB Jeff Sims tossed an interception into the hands of Ja’Had Carter. Carter returned the ball to about the Georgia Tech 40 yard line when he pitched the ball back to Trill Williams who ran it in for the score. Trill always seems to be in the right play at the right time, as he has ridiculous play-making abilities. Williams should be a day two or three pick in the draft.
WORST PLAY: 4th and Goal Spike
In a season as dreadful as this one, you’d think it would be a strenuous task to separate one play from the rest. It wasn’t. Backup quarterback Rex Culpepper made one of the worst situational football plays possible. Culpepper has had a roller coaster journey with the Orange. He was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2018, which almost took his life. Rex returned to the football field after being declared cancer-free in June of 2018 and continued to serve as a backup quarterback for the Orange. He was suddenly thrown in at QB for Syracuse after Tommy Devito’s injury, and it was never more evident that he was not a starting quarterback than in the closing moments against NC State. On third down and goal with 24 seconds left, Culpepper escaped from the pocket looking for an open receiver. He tried to make something out of nothing, and paid the price for it, as he was sacked with mere seconds left. The Orange offense hurried to the line, with one last attempt to tie the game. Completely unaware of the down, Culpepper spiked the ball on fourth down and goal. The play was a microcosm of how this season has gone for Syracuse. Although it was an embarrassing play for Rex, he deserves so much credit for returning to football as a backup quarterback after fighting for his life.
This is a season no one will want to remember if you are a Syracuse fan. The players, coaches, and organization would love to put this abysmal season in their rearview mirror and focus on next season. They have a ton to learn moving forward and the young guys will significantly benefit from this experience. Injuries completely derailed this season early on, and it became apparent this season was not going to go in favor of the Orange. The injury situation got so bad that they were down to less than 60 scholarship players and they had to regularly play a fullback on the offensive line. The team could have given up all hope and given poor effort, but Baber’s team fought until the very end. It’s a testament to Baber’s leadership that he still led his team out on Saturday’s instead of forfeiting games due to small roster size. The team deserves credit for all the hard work they put in to keep themselves safe and follow necessary precautions in the midst of a global pandemic in order to make this season occur. Despite the poor play on the field, the Orange provided us with entertainment during a rough time in our lives, and that is something all fans should truly be grateful for.