Saturday, November 17, 2018

Dino Babers, college football’s tent revivalist

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Upsets Put Syracuse Back on the Map, but Dino Babers’s Orange Aspire to Bigger Things

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?”

Stanford-Cal game rescheduled for Dec. 1 because of wildfires

5:58 PM ET

The Big Game between California and Stanford set for Saturday in Berkeley has been rescheduled for Dec. 1 because of poor air quality in Northern California brought on by wildfires.

“We have been carefully tracking air quality in Berkeley and the Bay Area over the past week, relying on the best data and guidance available to us from medical and environmental experts,” Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton said in a statement. “The forecasts we have received show a minimal chance of the improvement necessary to hold the game on Saturday.”

The Air Quality Index reading near Berkeley has hovered well above 200 for over 24 hours, a level at which “serious consideration should be given to rescheduling the activity or moving it indoors,” according to the NCAA.

“Prolonged exposure and heavy exertion” at that level, the NCAA says, “should be avoided.”

Cal’s original plan was to wait until Saturday before deciding the fate of the game, it said in a statement, but because a forecast from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District indicated conditions were unlikely to improve,

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How the top 10 teams can still make the College Football Playoff

9:00 AM ET

When Syracuse shocked then-No. 17 Virginia Tech in 2016, Orange coach Dino Babers gave an electric speech in the locker room that went viral and remains a part of the program’s identity — along with its penchant for upsets.

Last season, Syracuse knocked off then-No. 2 Clemson 27-24. The Orange came close to doing it again this season, losing at Clemson 27-23 on Sept. 29.

So yes, No. 12 Syracuse can beat No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday at Yankee Stadium in what will be the only matchup between two top-15 teams in Week 12. Every team in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings won in Week 11, keeping the selection committee’s top 10 exactly the same. Nine of those 10 teams play unranked opponents in Week 12.

ESPN’s College Football Playoff Predictor

ESPN’s College Football Playoff Predictor tells you who is most likely to be standing when the field of four is announced in December.

  • Would Alabama make CFP over Michigan in Armageddon scenario?

    If Clemson, Notre Dame, Michigan and Georgia all win out, but Alabama finishes 12-1, who’s the odd team out? Playoff Predictor weighs in.

  • If the top four teams are going to change in the committee’s fourth ranking of the season, it will most likely be because of another Syracuse upset — not that Babers can feel one brewing.

    “There’s been times when you get a feeling before a game that you’re going to do great and you’re just awful,” he said. “Or you do warm-ups and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get killed,’ and the guys do great. It’s hard to read that.”

    It’s not hard to read the implications of this game.

    Notre Dame has a 53 percent chance to win its final two games; if it does, it will be a virtual lock to reach the playoff (99 percent, according to ESPN’s Playoff Predictor). If the Fighting Irish lose to Syracuse? Their chance to reach the playoff will sink to 45 percent.

    Notre Dame is one of 10 teams left with at least a 1 percent chance to make the playoff. They are ranked below from highest to lowest percentage chance of finishing in the top four, according to Playoff Predictor:

    1. Clemson Tigers
    Toughest remaining game:
    Dec.1 vs. TBD in the ACC championship game
    Chance to make playoff: 95.3 percent
    Chance to win it all: 35.8 percent
    Best-case scenario: Finish as undefeated ACC champs. As good as Alabama is, no team is more of a lock for the playoff right now than Clemson. The Tigers have at least a 94 percent chance to win all three of their remaining games (including the ACC championship), and an 86 percent chance to enter the playoff with a 13-0 record. Even with a loss in the regular season, the Tigers would have a 75 percent chance to reach the playoff — as long as they win the ACC title.

    Worst-case scenario: An upset in the ACC championship game. Should Clemson suffer an upset to four-loss Pitt (which can clinch the Coastal Division this weekend with a victory or a Virginia loss) in the ACC title game, it would see its playoff chances sink to 51 percent.

    2. Alabama Crimson Tide
    Toughest remaining game:
    Dec. 1 vs. Georgia (68.1 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 85.9 percent
    Chance to win it all: 36.7 percent
    Best-case scenario: Finish as undefeated SEC champs. Even if Alabama should lose to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, it would still finish in the top four with an SEC title.

    Worst-case scenario: Losing to Georgia in the SEC championship game and getting into a debate with a one-loss Michigan that wins the Big Ten. The question for the committee would be if it deems Michigan and Alabama comparable enough to resort to their tiebreakers, which include strength of schedule and conference championships. Michigan would have victories over Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Big Ten West champ Northwestern (twice). Alabama would have wins over LSU, Mississippi State, Texas AM and Auburn. Their strength of record would be nearly identical. The difference could be in the Big Ten title game — and it could work in Michigan’s favor.

    3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 24 at USC (71.4 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 77.5 percent
    Chance to win it all: 6.4 percent
    Best-case scenario: Finish undefeated. If the Irish win their final two games, they should be a lock in the top four.

    Worst-case scenario: Lose a game and have everyone else win out. According to Playoff Predictor, both Michigan and Ohio State would get in over 11-1 Notre Dame if either of them won the Big Ten. A 12-1 Big Ten champion Michigan has a 91 percent chance to get into the playoff, compared to a 57 percent chance for an 11-1 Notre Dame. Should the Buckeyes win the Big Ten, they would have a 79 percent chance to finish in the top four, compared to 54 percent for one-loss Notre Dame in this situation. If Notre Dame DOES lose, it should hope the Big 12 champion has two losses — and that the Irish are still ranked ahead of Washington State.

    4. Michigan Wolverines
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 24 at Ohio State (55.1 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 44.7 percent
    Chance to win it all: 7.6 percent
    Best-case scenario: Finish as a one-loss Big Ten champion. Considering Michigan’s firm grip on the No. 4 spot each of the past two weeks (and likely three straight), if the Wolverines win, they’re in. Michigan can clinch the Big Ten East before the season finale in Columbus with a victory over Indiana on Saturday (96 percent chance to win) and an Ohio State loss to Maryland (there’s just a 17 percent chance that actually happens, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index).

    Worst-case scenario: Winning the Big Ten East but then losing to Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1. Then the Big Ten champion would be left out of the playoff for the third consecutive season.

    5. Georgia Bulldogs
    Toughest remaining game:
    Dec. 1 vs. Alabama in the SEC championship game (31.9 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 35.9 percent
    Chance to win it all: 7.4 percent
    Best-case scenario: Beat Alabama to win the SEC title and finish in the top four. The only question here would be if Alabama still finished in the top four, too.

    Worst-case scenario: Lose in the SEC championship and be left out. The chances of the SEC sending two teams to the playoff again this season dropped to 26 percent this week, and if Georgia loses again, it won’t happen.

    6. Oklahoma Sooners
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 23 at West Virginia (51.8 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 25.9 percent
    Chance to win it all: 3 percent
    Best-case scenario: Beat West Virginia twice to win the Big 12, and hope that either Notre Dame loses or Northwestern wins the Big Ten — or both. If Oklahoma, West Virginia AND Iowa State all win this week, the Sooners could clinch a spot in the Big 12 championship game. If OU knocks off the Mountaineers twice in two weeks to finish as a one-loss Big 12 champ, the Sooners would undoubtedly be considered for a top-four spot. They’re not getting in, though, at the expense of an undefeated Notre Dame, and there’s no guarantee they would get in over the Big Ten champion — unless it’s Northwestern. Considering the current standings, Michigan would probably still hold an edge over OU if the Wolverines win the Big Ten, but it might not be as clear-cut if the Buckeyes take the title.

    Worst-case scenario: Lose in the Big 12 title game.

    7. Ohio State Buckeyes
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 24 vs. Michigan (44.9 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 21.8 percent
    Chance to win it all: 2.1 percent
    Best-case scenario: Win the Big Ten and hope the Big 12 produces a two-loss champion. Remember, the Buckeyes have been staring up at both Oklahoma and West Virginia in the selection committee’s top 25. If that continues to hold throughout the regular-season rankings, a one-loss Ohio State as champ could remain stuck behind a one-loss Big 12 champ. One of the biggest storylines to watch down the stretch will be where Ohio State would fall in the committee’s ranking if it beats Michigan. If winning the Big Ten East catapults the Buckeyes ahead of the Big 12 front-runners heading into championship weekend, the outlook for Ohio State could take a sharp turn toward the playoff. Ohio State has a 30 percent chance to win out and finish 12-1; if it does, there’s a 71 percent chance the Buckeyes will be in the top four.

    Worst-case scenario: The Buckeyes suffer an upset at Maryland on Saturday. If OSU is looking ahead to Michigan, it could be a trap against a team trying to become bowl-eligible. If Ohio State loses and Michigan wins, the Wolverines will win the East before they even get to Columbus, and Ohio State’s chances of reaching the playoff will drop from 22 percent to 1 percent, according to Playoff Predictor.

    8. West Virginia Mountaineers
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 23 vs. Oklahoma (48.2 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 11 percent
    Chance to win it all: 0.8 percent
    Best-case scenario: Finish as a one-loss Big 12 champ with back-to-back victories over OU and hope for an upset in the Big Ten championship game. If Oklahoma, West Virginia AND Texas all win Saturday, the Mountaineers could clinch a spot in the Big 12 title game. The Mountaineers’ defense has been better than Oklahoma’s, and WVU won in Austin and in Lubbock. Don’t forget a nonconference Power 5 win over Tennessee. If West Virginia can beat Oklahoma State on the road Saturday and then end the regular season with a top-10 win over OU, it’s time to start taking the Mountaineers seriously in this conversation. In order to eliminate a debate against the Big Ten champ, it would help West Virginia exponentially if Northwestern won.

    Worst-case scenario: Finish the season with a home loss to OU.

    9. Washington State Cougars
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 23 vs. Washington (46.9 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 1.9 percent
    Chance to win it all: 0.1 percent
    Best-case scenario: The Cougars win out and beat three-loss, No. 19 Utah (not four-loss, unranked ASU) in the Pac-12 championship game Nov. 30 … and then benefit from a boatload of chaos. There would have to be some sort of combination of the following: The Big 12 champ finishes with two losses, Notre Dame loses, and there is an upset in either the ACC or Big Ten championship games (or both).

    Worst-case scenario: Wazzu loses the Apple Cup, and the Pac-12 champ has at least three losses. That would easily eliminate the league entirely.

    10. LSU Tigers
    Toughest remaining game:
    Nov. 24 at Texas AM (42.7 percent)
    Chance to make playoff: 1.1 percent
    Chance to win it all: 0.1 percent
    Best-case scenario: All of the angst over LSU’s place in the ranking the past two weeks in spite of its two losses is likely for naught, as LSU would need sheer madness to get back into the conversation. Getting into the playoff as a two-loss conference champion is difficult enough, but getting in as a two-loss team that didn’t even win its division? First, Georgia would have to lose to Georgia Tech, but then turn around and beat Alabama (you’d have a two-loss SEC champ that LSU would have defeated). Even that scenario doesn’t guarantee anything, considering how Alabama manhandled LSU, 29-0 on Nov. 3. So … add to that … Notre Dame loses, Northwestern wins the Big Ten, Pitt wins the ACC, Utah or Arizona State could win the Pac-12. Pick your poison, but there would have to be at least two major upsets.

    Worst-case scenario: LSU ends the season with a loss to the Aggies.

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    7 potential NBA homes for Carmelo Anthony once the Rockets release him

    Carmelo Anthony is out in Houston. Whether the Rockets’ slow start is his fault or not, it has become clear Houston is parting ways with its veteran forward just 10 games into his tenure with the team.

    Now, one of the league’s most heralded scorers is searching for his next NBA home, but it’s clear he’s not the same scorer who won three Olympic gold medals and a league scoring title in 2013. And while his offense has regressed, the other areas of his game have become nearly non-existent.

    Still, Anthony could be a serviceable player on the right team, maybe. Does that situation exist? That’s the question that needs an answer.

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    Anthony had an unceremonious end in New York when his iso-heavy, ball-stopping tendencies stifled the Knick offense. He didn’t fit in offensively next to Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and the Rockets could not find a fit for him in their high-powered offense. The NBA can be a three-strikes-and-you’re-out league, but Melo is reportedly working with the NBA to find a new home.

    There are a few teams that make sense for him to reach out to.

    Los Angeles Lakers

    Playing with LeBron James makes everybody better right? Let’s put that to the test. Send Melo to the Lakers and bring him off the bench to score for the second unit.

    Don’t expect it to happen, though.

    Golden State Warriors

    Because why not? Just add Melo to the fray and watch the thing blow up — on the way to the first championship of his career.

    Brooklyn Nets

    Is a homecoming in the works for one of Brooklyn’s brightest stars? Anthony was raised in Baltimore, but make no mistake, he was born in Brooklyn. It’s why he helped refurbish basketball courts in Red Hook and came back to the borough to promote the Brooklyn-Queens Connector: a potential streetcar system that could serve as an additional form of transportation in the next decade.

    The Nets suffered a major setback this season when budding star Caris LeVert was stretchered off the court after dislocating his foot in a game against the Timberwolves. Anthony’s basketball talents might not draw the same crowd, but his Brooklyn roots are undeniable. He also immediately becomes the most talented scorer in Kenny Atkinson’s creative Nets offense.

    Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum actively recruited Carmelo Anthony when he was looking for a way out of New York during the Phil Jackson era. Anthony could now be best described as an inside-out post-up threat: a discount LaMarcus Aldridge if you will. Terry Stotts made Aldridge look like Dirk Nowitzki. Can he make Anthony look like LaMarcus Aldridge?

    Blazer’s Edge had a one-word emphatic answer, though: no.

    Washington Wizards

    The Wizards have problems of their own, plus they already have Markieff Morris, someone who scores in a similar fashion as Carmelo Anthony, better than Carmelo Anthony. Melo to the Wizards could give them some depth at the forward slot.

    John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard sounds like a dream team if I’ve ever seen one. It also sounds like an experiment that could go terribly wrong terribly fast.

    Utah Jazz

    Utah has gotten off to a slow start. After last season’s offensive surge, they’ve gone cold. The Jazz have a dominant rim protector and enough versatile defenders to help Anthony on defense if he’s on the floor. If Quin Snyder can mix up Anthony’s possessions on the post and isolating on the wing, he may be able to revive some of what we saw in Denver.

    Miami Heat

    The Heat make the most sense out of all of these teams. They’re a club that could use that type of scoring power on the perimeter, and Melo is a bona fide bucket-getter. Miami has the best conditioning team on the planet, and they’re home to one of his best friends in the league, Dwyane Wade.

    The Heat are also a defensive team with a dominant rebounder in Hassan Whiteside: their strengths compensate for Anthony’s biggest weaknesses.

    Erik Spoelstra is a coach who can fit Melo into his scheme and craft different opportunities for him all over the court. If it doesn’t work in Miami, it won’t work anywhere.

    Anthony’s tenure in Houston might be over, but it doesn’t mean his career as an NBA player is. What’s clear is if he doesn’t adjust to being a role player fast, wherever he stops next will be his last. It’s been one of the quickest falls from grace we’ve ever seen from a star of his caliber.

    Still, the right next stop could be a revival.

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    The Packers‘ offense remains frustrating

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    The problem? The Packers ran just 48 plays, despite recovering a fumble on the very first play of the game for the Seahawks. There just wasn’t much room for anyone but those three to make an impact as a result. Little-used reserve Robert

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