- Associated Press - Monday, November 28, 2016

After Syracuse’s record-setting loss to Pittsburgh that ended the Orange’s first season under Dino Babers, the coach revealed his immediate plans.

“I am going to be out Sunday recruiting,” Babers said after Saturday’s 76-61 loss at Heinz Field.

Smart move.

Babers was hired almost one year ago to replace Scott Shafer, whose final game at Syracuse was an emotional home win over Boston College that left the Orange with a 4-8 overall record and a 2-6 showing in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Babers ended his first year at Syracuse with the same record and the team on a four-game slide.

There’s room for more improvement on both sides of the ball.

Five of Syracuse’s losses came against teams ranked this week in the AP Top 25 - Clemson, Louisville, Florida State, Pittsburgh and South Florida. Those five outscored the Orange 282-123, and only one of Syracuse’s victories came against a team with a winning record.

Syracuse embraced the new coaching regime and Babers’ uptempo offensive blueprint, finishing the season ranked 11th in passing offense (321.3 yards per game). But too many injuries on both sides of the ball, reminiscent of what happened to Shafer, and an inability to score despite some gaudy passing numbers, relegated the Orange to another losing season.

Helped by that final crazy game against the Panthers , Syracuse finished its season ranked 89th in scoring nationally, averaging just 25.7 points per game. Coupling with a defense that was ranked 121st and allowed nearly seven yards per play was not a winning formula, especially with a run game that averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and was ranked 119th.

Still, the players like what they’ve seen, especially their upset win over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech, which will play Clemson for the ACC championship.

“People have truly changed the way they act on and off the field,” said quarterback Zack Mahoney, a capable fill-in for injured starter Eric Dungey . “People buy into coach Babers’ methods. I just hope that in the future we continue to push ourselves.”

The biggest question heading into the offseason is the health of Dungey, the cornerstone of the offense who missed four games last year with at least one concussion and the final three games this season after incurring a hard hit to the shoulder-head area in the first quarter of a 54-0 loss at Clemson. Dungey, who will be a junior next year, was on the sidelines throwing before each of the final two home games but did not play and also didn’t play Saturday.

Whoever lines up over center won’t have the most important cog of this year’s offense - wideout Amba Etta-Tawo. The Maryland transfer set school records in his final year of eligibility - 94 catches for 1,482 yards (second nationally) and 14 TDs. Also departing is kick returner Brisly Estime, who led the nation with 17.7 yards per punt return.

Defensively, the Orange allowed 501 yards per game, 35 TDs rushing, and 5.4 yards per rush, all school records. The good news is that the Orange’s top three tacklers - LBs Parris Bennett (110) and Zaire Franklin (101, 10 TFLs), and CB Daivon Ellison (90) - return next season.

“There was growth,” Babers said. “Could we be better on defense? Yes, we could be better on defense. We can be better on offense. The one thing that happened this year that is a blessing is that a lot of guys got to play because of a lot of injuries.

“Normally, it looks bad one year. But the negatives from one year can be the blessings the next year. We have to roll through and see how it goes.”

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

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Follow Kekis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greek1947

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