For the last three seasons, Ivy League football fans have seen the championship come down to the same game: University of Pennsylvania vs. Harvard University.

The Quakers’ record-breaking 2002 season (after being picked third in pre-season rankings) proved you never know what to expect in Ivy League football. And while the Quakers return 12 All-Ivy players from last year’s team, they may be due for some tough losses this season.

Both Penn and Harvard should still contend for the title this year, but Harvard’s loss of several skilled players and the return of key members for the Yale Bulldogs, Dartmouth College Big Green and Princeton University Tigers should create many exciting games.

Penn at Harvard, Nov. 15

Regardless of whether the Ivy League championship comes down to it this year, Penn-Harvard has become quite a rivalry over the last three seasons.

Penn head coach Al Bagnoli doubts the game will decide the Ivy League champion for the fourth year in a row.

“The odds are against it to go into week nine,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of things to worry about before then.”

Even if the rematch is not for a title, emotions should run high in the last home game of Harvard’s 100th season at Harvard Stadium. The Crimson is going to have to rise to the occasion to avoid a repeat of last year’s embarrassment.

The Quakers crushed the Cantabs at Franklin Field in 2002, and there should be more disparity between the two squads this year. Harvard’s three straight seasons averaging over 400 yards per game may come to an end after the graduation of quarterback Neil Rose and two-time Ivy League player of the year wide receiver Carl Morris. Starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will have to step up. Fitzpatrick performed well under pressure in tight wins over Brown and Yale last season while substituting for an injured Rose.

Penn also graduated several offensive starters — the program’s all-time leading receiver Rob Milanese and running back Stephen Faulk — but returns first-team All-Ivy quarterback Mike Mitchell. Mitchell threw for 2,803 yards and 20 touchdowns after very limited experience in 2001. The return of all five starting offensive linemen from last year’s second-ranked scoring offense in Division I-AA should help take the pressure off Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick will have his hands full with two-time All-Ivy linebacker Steve Lhotak and All-Ivy honorable mention defensive end Ric San Doval. Lhotak had 64 tackles and seven sacks last year, while Doval, who also may see some action at linebacker, had six sacks.

The Quakers also return four defensive linemen, including All-Ivy Ryan Strahlendorf. Fitzpatrick did become the first Harvard quarterback to rush for over 100 yards in a game, but he may be unable to scramble away from the Quaker defense.

Yale at Princeton, Nov. 15

Although Penn and Harvard are predicted by the media poll to finish in first and second place, there is a strong possibility that either the Bulldogs or Tigers will be able to break into one of the top two spots. Regardless of whether this game will have any title implications, it should be an enthralling game to watch based on last year’s tight finish and the high number of returning players on both squads.

On a nasty New Haven November afternoon, Yale defeated Princeton 7-3 in 2002, when wide receiver Rob Benigno ’04 scored a touchdown with under five minutes to play.

While it took head coach John Siedlecki’s team nearly the entire game to score, the Bulldogs will look to break the game open early this year with the return of a plethora of offensive starters. Returning quarterbacks Alvin Cowan ’04 and Jeff Mroz ’05 will have many of the same options they did last year. Nearly all the Bulldog wide receivers and tight ends are returning from the 2002 squad. Benigno led the team with six touchdown receptions last year, while Nate Lawrie ’04 set a school record for most receptions by a tight end with 41. The presence of 2002 team MVP Robert Carr ’05 as running back should also take pressure off the Yale quarterbacks.

Fortunately for Princeton, the Tigers return multiple All-Ivy players on defense to go head-to-head with Yale’s impressive offense. First-team All-Ivy Joe Weiss leads a defensive line of four returning starters. Weiss, who had eight sacks and 62 tackles last year, will be joined by All-Ivy co-captain Tim Kirby (4 sacks, 46 tackles). The Bulldogs also will have to watch for All-Ivy defensive back Blake Perry, who returns after leading the Tigers with 66 tackles last year.

With an evenly matched Yale offense and Princeton defense, one of the keys will be how both teams respond when the Tigers have possession.

Princeton will be looking to its athletic quarterbacks junior Dave Splithoff and sophomore Matt Verbitt. Head coach Roger Hughes, who knows a thing or two about great Ivy League quarterbacks after coaching Miami Dolphins QB Jay Fiedler back at Dartmouth, may use both quarterbacks throughout the season. Verbitt, who started against Yale after Splithoff’s injury in the second half of the season, will have to improve upon his performance at the Yale Bowl last fall. Unaided by the harsh weather, Verbitt lost a net total of 28 yards on 10 rushing attempts and went 13 for 35 on pass attempts.

Yale’s second-team All-Ivy linebacker Ken Estrera ’04 could play a major role in frustrating Princeton’s offense once again.

For the sake of the fans, this rematch should live up to last year’s intensity, but hopefully without the bad weather. Either way, the fans, at least, will not have to deal with poor game conditions; the YES Network will be televising the game as one of five Ivy League broadcasts.

Brown at Columbia, Nov. 22

The Bears and Lions may have a lot riding on their last game of the season.

If the Ivy League preseason media poll is correct, Brown and Columbia will certainly not be playing for the Ivy League championship. Instead, both teams will be looking to avoid the embarrassment of finishing in last place in the non-coveted “basement bowl.”

The Bears had a disappointing 2002 season with a 2-6 Ivy League record. The only team to finish below the Bears was, of course, the 0-8 Lions. And things do not look any better for either team this season.

Brown enters 2003 without two of their star seniors in 2002, All-American receiver Chad Gessner and running back Joe Rackley.

The only major change for Columbia is a new head coach. Bob Shoop does not appear to have much to work with this season, but it will be hard for the Lions not to improve on last year’s dismal season.

The high point for both teams is the return of their senior quarterbacks. Columbia’s Steve Hunsberger became the second Columbia quarterback to throw over 200 completions in a season and the first to pass for over 2,000 yards since 1994. But Brown’s Kyle Slager clearly has the edge in the quarterback matchup. Slager’s 230 completions in 2002 were good for eighth best in Ivy history. He also threw for an impressive 2,609 yards.

In last year’s meeting, Slager led the Browns to a narrow 35-28 victory. The Brown quarterback threw three touchdown passes and rushed for one of his own. Without Gressner and three of last year’s senior offensive linemen, Slager could be vulnerable in the backfield.

Hunsberger will have to watch out for two-time rookie of the week Jason Ching in the Bears’ secondary. Ching led the team with three interceptions in 2002.

Although Brown graduated its three top tacklers from last year, senior linebacker Andrew Gallagher, who recorded 40 tackles as a sophomore, returns after sitting out the 2002 season with an injury.

Both quarterbacks will experience heavy pressure in the fight to stay out of the cellar.