AROUND THE IVIES: Preseason Picks? No Help, Says Lehman

James K. Polk once said: “Preseason polls are dumb.”

Well, not really. Our 11th president’s famous slogan was “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” But I’m saying it now: preseason polls are dumb.

How can a team be properly evaluated before it has played a down? If games were played on paper, the Yankees would have swept the Tigers, and if players’ values were so easily projected from their vitals, Darius Miles would be an All-Star. Or an Oscar winner.

In college especially, where the team’s composition by nature changes dramatically every year, these first forecasts are silly.

It wouldn’t be so problematic if voters had the ingenuity or inclination to start from scratch in composing their rankings each week. Instead, they employ the previous week’s poll as their foundation and build from there—a loss slides a team down, a quality win bumps a team up.

Therefore, a stinky squad that had the good fortune to be ranked in the preseason lingers in the Top 25 for far too long, while an unheralded dynamo is forced to wait weeks to crack the list.

This inertia mainly plagues the national rankings, but many of the same problems attend to conference polls.

In the Ivy League above all, where there is no possibility of qualifying for the playoffs, where the only relevant title is the Ancient Eight crown, and strength of schedule and margin of victory are basically irrelevant, are these primary postulates preposterous.

The initial expectations they contain, though, heavily influence the opinions of teams (adverse or positive effects), fans, and writers. What I mean to say is, until a few hours ago, I still thought 1-3 Brown was better than 4-0 Princeton, simply because the Bears were slotted third and the Tigers sixth in the preseason poll.

So this week, I’m instituting a month-long shelf life on memory, and considering only the past four games in casting my lots for Week 5.

HARVARD (4-0 VY) VS. LAFAYETTE (2-3)

Harvard is the lone Ivy squad that seems to have lived up to the classification it received from the so-called experts back in August—number one.

Offensively, the Crimson is consistent and explosive and consistently explosive, posting 31 points, 38, 35, and 33 in its first four contests, respectively. It’s averaging an absurd 6.68 yards per play paced by deep threat Corey Mazza and All-American Canadian Clifton Dawson.

(How does this guy not have a cool nickname yet? The best player in the history of a school known for its wits and still not a “Sweetness” or a “Bus” or a “Human Highlight Reel” in sight? I’m accepting suggestions in my inbox starting now. We need to get this circulated by the end of the season. And no, C.D. does not count. That stands for compact disc or cookie dough.)

And Chris Pizzotti, with all of three career starts to his name, may just be the best quarterback in the league, currently topping the Ivies in passing efficiency.

On defense, Harvard leads the nation in allowing just 1.3 yards per carry, or, more explicitly, a scant 42 rushing yards per game.

I could find 42 rushin’ yards on one block in Sheepshead Bay. (Think about it.)

Lafayette has been downright victimized by the Ivy League this season, with its three losses coming at the hands of Penn, Princeton, and Yale. But the Leopards are coming off a bye week, with plenty of time to scheme for the balanced and talented Crimson.

If there’s one weakness to be exploited, it’s the suspect Crimson secondary, sorely missing corner Andrew Berry, that allowed neophyte Cornell QB Nathan Ford to go over 300 yards last week. Brad Maurer is a veteran passer with the savvy to give that unit some trouble, but not enough to threaten the perfect record.

Prediction: Harvard 35, Lafayette 20

PRINCETON (4-0, 1-0) VS. BROWN (1-3, 0-1)

The Ivy League trots out its own rendition of Friday Night Lights this evening as the Tigers and Bears square off under the stars. The game will be nationally televised at 7 p.m. on ESPNU, for those of you with 400 channels, a fondness for mid-level 1-AA football, and no other plans.

Few may recall that these were the top two teams in the league last season, with only a monumental choke against Yale in the penultimate week separating Princeton from a share of the title.

The Tigers, to the surprise of many, picked up where they left off, entering the national rankings this week for the first time since 1993. Coach Roger Hughes’ shutdown D (274 yards surrendered per game) has led the team to victories over the Patriot League’s top three.

The same can not be said for defending champion Brown. The Bears’ bid to repeat will all but end with a loss in Jersey, and the suddenly porous defense, giving up more than 400 yards per game, and floundering running game do not bode well.

Now, could Princeton suffer a letdown after earning Top 25 recognition? Could it be looking ahead to a huge game versus Harvard next weekend? Yes and yes. And that keeps it interesting until the final minutes, but the Tigers pull it out.

Prediction: Princeton 24, Brown 18

PENN (3-1, 1-0) VS. COLUMBIA (3-1, 0-1)

Norries Wilson doesn’t like his wife walking the neighborhood around their home on 107th Street after dark. But if he teaches self-defense as well as he tutors team defense, I think Mrs. Wilson will be just fine.

The upstart Lions lead the Ivies in scoring defense (11.75 per game), total defense (264 yards per game), and turnover margin. Columbia has a whopping 15 takeaways through four games. Potential trap game for the Quakers.

Prediction: Penn 27, Columbia 10

YALE (3-1, 2-0) VS. LEHIGH (2-3)

How’s this for Arrested Development? One week after getting ‘cuffed following a late-night New Haven fracas, sophomore stud tailback Mike McLeod rushed for 198 yards and two TDs in a too-close-for-comfort win over Dartmouth.

Lehigh’s run defense, however, is one of the better ones around, two weeks removed from holding Dawson to a season-low 94 yards.

Prediction: Lehigh 24, Yale 23

CORNELL (1-3, 0-2) VS. COLGATE (2-3)

Colgate has beaten Cornell in their last 10 meetings, dating back to 1992. But I’m just focusing on 2006, remember?

Remarkably similar teams in name (seven letters beginning in C) and place (non-metropolitan New York) and strategy (run early and often). A showdown of productive runners in Jordan Scott of Colgate and Luke Siwula of Cornell. Neither quarterback is afraid to tuck it and take off either.

Take the points.

Prediction: Colgate 21, Cornell 17

DARTMOUTH (0-4, 0-2) VS. HOLY CROSS (4-2)

HC, don’t look this gift horse in the (Dart)mouth.

Prediction: Holy Cross 28, Dartmouth 14

—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at jlehman@fas.harvard.edu.

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