Syracuse, N.Y. — It’s the biggest game in more than 15 years, and, naturally, Dino Babers is talking about Saturday’s matchup against unbeaten and third-ranked Notre Dame as if his team is preparing for Connecticut in the middle of September.
Oh, Babers had plenty of nice things to say about the Fighting Irish (10-0), a.k.a “the nation’s team,” and he did not conflate Notre Dame’s personnel with UConn’s.
But he did everything to downplay the magnitude of Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx when speaking with reporters Monday morning.
Biggest game since 2001 — when No. 14 Syracuse traveled to No. 1 Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 17 and promptly left as 59-0 losers against a team regarded as one of the best in the history of college football?
“To me, this is like a freebie,” Babers said. “We’re 4-0 playing the second part of our season. We have a nonconference opponent we are playing, and it doesn’t affect our conference standings, but it does affect our overall record.
“I look at this one a little bit differently than our conference.”
Babers had a similar message two months ago before his team, riding a four-game winning streak to open the season, headed to Clemson to take on the defending ACC champions.
“Win or lose,” Babers said at the time, “it only counts as one game. If you make it more than that, you start to get ahead of yourself, and that’s when you get in trouble.”
That week-by-week, game-by-game approach has seeped into his players and has factored into this season’s success, carrying the Orange (8-2, 5-2 ACC) to heights not reached since the Paul Pasqualoni era.
Babers came to Syracuse three years ago because he wanted to coach in games like Saturday’s — nationally televised on NBC with major-bowl implications for both teams at stake on the penultimate weekend of the regular season.
The opposition is formidable and favored by more than a touchdown. It will leave its trademark golden helmets at home, replaced by pinstriped pants and navy tops, but it will still bring a fanbase that fills up stadiums coast to coast, one that will likely have an overwhelming advantage in numbers over the Orange fans who pack into Yankee Stadium.
And Babers will attempt to guide his team to victory in a game played 17 years to the day since SU got shellacked by that Miami team, looking to continue this magical season that has reminded everyone in this town what it was like to go toe-to-toe with the best on a national stage.
“We’ve played on TV before,” Babers said. “The stage is no different than playing in Clemson’s stadium or playing in some of the other stadiums we’ve played in.”
Of course it’s not.