Ivy League football fans were hardly holding their breath when the results of the conference’s preseason media poll were released last month.
The Quakers were ranked first with 120 points, edging the Crimson by one point after splitting the 16 first-place votes. But since the two teams have won a combined seven Ivy League titles since 1997, and the last five, even someone who only watches ESPN’s College GameDay could have guessed the poll’s results.
Whether or not the title will be determined by the winner of the Harvard-Penn game, there are no questions regarding the Quakers’ and the Cantabs’ combined dominance. Last season, both teams came up on top of many Ivy League statistical categories.
Harvard and Penn were first and second in both scoring offense and defense. The Crimson had an average of 33.9 points per game on offense while the Quakers had 23.8. On defense, the Cantabs limited their opponents to 13.4 points per game while the Quakers’ opponents scored an average of 14.5 points per game.
Harvard was first in terms of rushing offense with 209.1 average yards per game, largely thanks to rising junior Clifton Dawson. At the same time, Penn’s quarterback Pat McDermott led the Quakers to first place in terms of passing offense with 246.2 average yards per game. These sorts of rankings are littered throughout the books of the last eight years.
But Andy Coen, the Quakers’ offensive coordinator, said that while the polls reflect recent history, they may understate how competitive the league will be.
“The polls came up this way because it has been the same for the last couple of years,” Coen said. “But there is a lot of parity in the league. There are a lot of good teams competing for the title.”
Harvard head coach Tim Murphy agreed that many teams in the league could compete for the title, but added that the Quakers deserved their top-tier ranking.
“It is very legitimate for Penn to be picked No. 1,” Murphy said. “They have been the dominant team in the league for the past two decades. Having said that, I truly believe this year is a much more wide-open race than the past several years.”
Murphy said these kinds of successes are due more to his game-making players than to the plays he designs.
“At Harvard, we have a saying that ‘It’s not the arrows, it’s the Indians,'” Murphy said. “We think we are doing a solid job coaching, but it is the players who win championships, and I have been very fortunate to recruit and develop special players on both sides of the ball, and those guys really deserve the credit for the championships.”
Penn’s Coen cited the work Quaker head coach Al Bagnoli has done in his 14 years as the reason for the team’s victories.
“Since Coach Bagnoli has been at Penn, he’s been successful and has won,” Coen said. “Kids pick schools for different reasons. We are all good academic schools, but the kids know who is winning.”
Yale linebacker Shomari Taylor ’06 said continued success has helped Harvard and Penn maintain their recruiting.
“They recruit well, and so they have an advantage,” Taylor said. “In any college football program, if you have a good year it looks more attractive to the prospects.”
But Yale captain and quarterback Jeff Mroz ’06 said the Quakers’ and Cantabs’ dominance has emerged from more than the players they attract.
“They are both very well-coached and very disciplined,” Mroz said. “They don’t make many mistakes. They have an agenda, and they adhere to it.”
Rigid discipline can help a team fight through the kinds of situations that often arise in the Ivy League when a team that is supposed to be slaughtering their opponent finds themselves on the other side of the chopping block. But as Coen and Murphy said, anything can and does happen on Saturdays in the Ancient Eight. The burden remains on the Quakers and the Cantabs to prove that they can use tools like recruiting, coaching and discipline to maintain their lofty positions.