In choosing the Ivy League favorite, it is pointless to consult the list of graduated seniors and returning starters to estimate the University of Pennsylvania’s strength. Ancient Eight pundits tried that last year, placing the Quakers fourth in the Ivy League Preseason Media Poll.
Penn then had one of the most dominating seasons in Ivy League history, finishing 7-0 in league play (its closest margin of victory was a whopping 41-20 “squeaker” against Yale). Penn allowed just 13 points per game and set league records for rushing defense (43 yards per game), scoring offense (43 points per game), and average margin of victory (30.1 points per game).
“Statistically at Penn, this was the most dominating [team I’ve had],” said head coach Al Bagnoli, speaking of the 2002 squad. “We’ve had better defensive performance, and a comparable offensive performance, but never both in the same year. It was, maybe, a season for the ages.”
While the rest of the league can take solace in the departure of three unanimous first-team All-Ivy players and Penn’s all-time leading receiver, the Quakers still return much of last year’s talent: 12 All-Ivy picks, 15 starters, and 40 letterwinners. Most importantly, first-team All-Ivy quarterback Mike Mitchell, All-Ivy linebacker Steve Lhotak, and the entire offensive line return.
So who might dethrone a Penn program with five outright championships in Bagnoli’s 12-year tenure?
Harvard is the pick for runner-up, but Crimson head coach Tim Murphy did not sound particularly optimistic about his offense, and rightly so considering the Crimson lost two-time Ivy League MVP wide receiver Carl Morris and record-setting quarterback Neil Rose, among others.
“We have the opportunity to be a very good defense this year,” said Murphy at the annual Ivy League preseason press conference in August. “And we’re probably going to have to be.”
Yale, the only other school to garner first place ballots in the preseason poll, boasts a high-octane offense. But its defense is suspect after graduating almost its entire defensive front and losing secondary leader Barton Simmons ’04 with a season-ending knee injury during spring practice.
The competition diminishes after the Bulldogs. Dartmouth has one of the most talented players in the league: All-American tight end Casey Cramer. But Cramer, twice a unanimous First Team All-Ivy selection, needs to get the ball. Last fall, Cramer caught for All-Ivy quarterback Brian Mann. This year, head coach John Lyons said he expects University of Wisconsin transfer Scott Wille to call the signals.
Princeton head coach Roger Hughes said B.J. Szymanski will replace graduated wideout Chisom Opara, one of the league’s premier players last season. The loss of First Team All-Ivy tailback Cameron Atkinson, the school’s third leading career rusher, will be particularly hard to offset.
The remaining three programs — Cornell, Brown and Columbia — will battle for last place, much as they did last season.
The Bears, who have planned a number of events to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Brown football this season, will not have much to celebrate other than a history that has seen brighter moments. The Bears finished 2-8 (2-5 Ivy) last season and graduated one of the best players in school history — Chas Gessner — as well as 28 letterwinners and 16 starters. Though they do return first-string quarterback Kyle Slager, he will miss handing the ball to leading rusher Joe Rackley, and head coach Phil Estes said the team will rely more upon the run this season.
Columbia is also celebrating this season, wearing throwback jerseys to honor the 70th anniversary of the 1933 Lions team that upset Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But this season might get as ugly as the jerseys. Running back Rashad Biggers joins returning starter Steve Hunsberger at quarterback. But Columbia still has holes to fill after its 1-9 (0-7) 2002 season when the Lions lost by more than an average of two touchdowns.
Cornell, while certainly not an Ancient Eight contender, could field a decent squad this year. It returns three of its four top all-purpose yard-gainers and quarterback Mick Razzano. All five starting offensive lineman are back for another season, and so are two of the Big Red’s four defensive All-Ivy selections.
But no team has repeated as Ivy League champion two years in a row since Pennsylvania did in 1993 and 1994. Beyond Penn, the field is wide open.
The Ivy League, typically known for its penchant to pass, might collectively go to the ground more this season. A more “grounded” Ivy League could produce some better football games and some defensive battles. Those battles could very well be won by Penn, which, on paper, still has the conference’s best defense. As coaches often preach, “defense wins championships,” and unless another team puts together an equally dominating unit, Penn is poised to prove that motto again.
1. Pennsylvania (1-0) Ivy prediction: (6-1)
The one loss is only there because Penn cannot be as good as last season — can it?
T-2. Yale (1-0) Ivy prediction: (5-2)
Considering the Bulldogs lost only one skill-position offensive starter — fullback Eric Wenzel ’04 — and return some very capable players on the line, including All-Ivy tackle Rory Hennessey ’05, the Elis will post impressive offensive numbers this season, such as the 62-point fireworks of the Eli opener. The only question is whether the defense can hold down the fort. The Elis are strong enough up the middle with defensive tackle Bryant Dieffenbacher ’04 and linebackers Ken Estrera ’04 and Ben Breunig ’05 to hold other teams down.
T–2. Harvard (1-0) Ivy prediction: (5-2)
Linebacker Dante Balestracci will have to rally his defensive unit to have any chance at an Ivy crown this season because the offense will be nothing like it was for the past two seasons. A 43-point performance against Holy Cross in the opener might have tricked some, but the Holy Cross defense has relinquished an average of 38 points per game in its first three contests. Balestracci, who is a favorite to become the first player on the defensive side of the ball since 1995 to win the Asa S. Bushnell Cup, might be up to it.
The Crimson won The Game the past two seasons, but it is historically very difficult to put together long winning streaks in the heated rivalry. With both teams competitive, there will be a deafening crowd at the Yale Bowl, and homefield advantage will tip a close one to the Bulldogs.
4. Dartmouth (0-1) Ivy prediction: (4-3)
Having the best offensive hands in the league must count for something, and Dartmouth has them in Casey Cramer. The question mark is quarterback Scott Wille. If he can be anywhere near as effective as Brian Mann was at getting his 6-foot-2 235-pound tight end the ball, Dartmouth should not suffer offensively. But a meager nine-point effort last weekend is not encouraging.
5. Princeton (0-1) Ivy prediction: (3-4)
The Tiger offense will be happy to see the return of David Splithoff, the quarterback last season until injuring his shoulder against Harvard. His replacement, Matt Verbit, performed well, but a healthy Splithoff is better. Coach Hughes indicated he might rotate both signal-callers: if that happens, you know Princeton is in big trouble.
On defense, returning first-team All-Ivy lineman Joe Weiss and first-team linebacker Zak Keasey should headline a decent unit. The Tigers could finish fourth, but it would take luck for them to finish any higher.
T-6. Cornell (1-0) Ivy prediction: (2-5)
Coach Pendergast is excited to have quarterback Mick Razzano return, and while that might be better than having to start a new quarterback, he should not forget that Razzano completed less than 50 percent of his passes last season and threw as many interceptions as touchdowns. Razzano avoided turnovers last weekend against Bucknell while completing a decent percentage of his attempts. Still, without standout receiver Keith Ferguson, Razzano could have trouble this season.
T-6. Brown (1-0) Ivy prediction: (2-5)
Brown’s team was supposed to be good last season and was not. Brown is not supposed to be good this season and will not be. Yes, quarterback Kyle Slager returns, but his gaudy numbers are mostly attributable to the offense Brown runs and Chas Gessner’s hands. Losing No. 2 wideout Brandon Buchanan and running back Joe Rackley, who accounted for almost two-thirds of the Bears’ dismal rushing attack, does not help. The bottom line is this team needs just that: help.
8. Columbia (0-1) Ivy prediction: (1-6)
The only thing they have going for them is that Biggers and Hunsberger return. One might call them slightly less dark spots in a team that was a black hole last season.
The one intangible is new head coach Bob Shoop. If Shoop can marshall the talent that departed coach Ray Tellier squandered, the Lions could surprise fans. Keep in mind it will be a surprise if Columbia wins a game. This is a team that wins two Ivy League contests at most. Three conference wins, and Shoops is Knute Rockne reincarnated.