Football Talking about football is back.
Tuesday morning, 45 days before the Harvard football team kicks off its season against Holy Cross, the Ivy League released its 2014 Preseason Media Poll and hosted a marathon teleconference with each coach in the conference and select media members. A lot came out of the conversation.
Without further ado, this is how the media thinks this year’s standings will look.
After tying Princeton for the title last year, the Crimson was ranked second this year in the closest vote since Harvard and Yale tied for first in 2008.
I understand why the Tigers narrowly earned the No. 1 spot. They beat the Crimson in total offense, total defense, margin of victory in Ivy contests, and in triple-overtime at Harvard Stadium last year.
But, I have the Crimson finishing No. 1 this year. More on this later.
The next closest race was for fifth place, with Yale edging Brown. Meanwhile, Penn fell to fourth after entering last year as the favorite to win the conference.
I don’t have an issue with the Dartmouth-Penn-Yale-Brown order. Look back at the Big Green’s schedule last year. The only thing between them and an undefeated Ivy season was a 4OT loss at Franklin Field and a three-point defeat at Harvard Stadium, two toss-up games in the league’s toughest venues. With Penn and Harvard traveling to Hanover this year, Dartmouth could very well travel to Princeton in the final week with a chance to go undefeated, or at least win their first championship since 1996.
That said, the Quakers did beat the Big Green last year, and they deserve more credit than this poll gives them. Though Penn finished 12 points short of Dartmouth and 11 ahead of Yale in the survey, I think they are closer to 3rd than they are to 5th. I just don’t see Al Bagnoli going out in the middle of the pack.
And now some notes from the coaches’ teleconference, in alphabetical order with last year’s record in parentheses:
BROWN (6-4, 3-4 Ivy)
-I’m not sure how he’s counting, but Bears coach Phil Estes said he has to replace 11 starters on offense.
-Discussing new quarterback Marcus Fuller, Phil Estes invoked ‘Johnny Manziel’ and ‘razzle-dazzle.’ Between Holy Cross’ Patriot League Rookie of the Year Peter Pujals and Fuller, it sounds like we’ll only need two weeks to see how well Harvard’s young defense handles mobile quarterbacks.
I don’t see ‘razzle-dazzle’ being enough to lift Brown from its inert state as good-but-not-great. The Bears have finished 6-4 or 7-3 in each of the last six seasons and that’s probably where they will end up again this year.
COLUMBIA (0-10, 0-7)
-On the roughly 130-minute long teleconference, coach Pete Mangurian took up over 20 minutes. His deep-dive through the Lions depth chart led the Daily Pennsylvanian’s Sports department to tweet, “Pete Mangurian has given us just about the most detailed look into Columbia football ever. Wow.”
-Outside of its length, Mangurian’s comments were unremarkable. I’ll let the Lions win a game before discussing them more.
What else is there to say about LOLumbia? Moving right along…
CORNELL (3-7, 2-5)
-It’s hard to call it rebuilding after the Big Red went 3-7 in Jeff Mathews’ final season last year. But with the QB now in Atlanta Falcons training camp, David Archer has to find a new way for his team to score points, and he’s hoping new offensive coordinator Roy Istvan will be able to help. Istvan was previously at Rhode Island.
-Archer said he spent the spring “evaluating and establishing a run game” in the hopes of utilizing junior running back Luke Hagy.
Seems like Cornell will have a different identity this year, but I’m predicting the same results: a November thank you card to Columbia for keeping the Big Red out of the cellar.
DARTMOUTH (6-4, 5-2)
-In one of my favorite moments of the teleconference, coach Buddy Teevens said of his team’s place in the polls, “Third place is nice, but with all respect to the people doing the poll, you are rarely right.”
-Talking about his team, Teevens highlighted depth at the linebacker position and at wide receiver, although he said his running back depth is shaky for the time being.
Dartmouth would be a dark horse if they weren’t so damned popular, particularly after upsetting Princeton to end 2013. Their ability to truly reach the upper echelon rides on the shoulders of junior Dalyn Williams. The dual-threat QB enters his third season needing to show the consistency Princeton’s Quinn Epperly and Harvard’s Conner Hempel will likely exhibit. The fact the rest of the team is strong enough for Williams to potentially take them to a title is a testament to Teevens.
HARVARD (9-1, 6-1)
-Harvard’s biggest losses to graduation were tight end Cam Brate, defensive tackle Nnamdi Obukwelu, linebacker Josh Boyd, and a bunch of defensive backs: Brian Owusu, Jaron Wilson, D.J. Monroe, Reynaldo Kirton, Chris Splinter, and more. From the sound of coach Tim Murphy’s comments Tuesday, the team will be able to fill those first three holes comfortably, but the defensive backfield remains a concern. Captain Norman Hayes will anchor the unit, but after him, Murphy will rely on relatively inexperienced Sean Ahern, Jordan Becerra, Raishaun McGee, and others.
-On the offensive side of the ball, the Crimson figures to be stacked. Returning quarterback Conner Hempel will be handing the ball to Paul Stanton and throwing to Andrew Fischer and Ricky Zorn. Seitu Smith, Matt Brown, and Tyler Hamblin will play a variety of roles in and around the backfield and line of scrimmage.
-And then there is the offensive line, which Murphy raved about during the call. If Anthony Fabiano, a former starting left tackle, can regain his form at guard, the line could be special. Anchored by FCS preseason All-American center Nick Easton and flanked by tackles Adam Redmond and Cole Toner, the group will give Harvard an advantage in the trenches every week. “The O-line, as a group of five guys, is as good as we’ve had in a long long time,” Murphy said.
-Murphy just about guaranteed that former punter Jake Dombrowski will one day be a starting punter in the NFL. Dombrowski is currently on the training camp roster in Buffalo, though he is unlikely to unseat the Bills starter.
-Murphy can be quite a storyteller when he wants to be, and his answer to a question regarding his health issues in the spring was one of the more emotional responses I’ve heard from him in three years. “Life comes at you fast,” he said, explaining what he learned from having a cardiac surgeon tell him he needed to be operated on. Murphy then said he realized, “The most important things in your life are your health, your family, your friends, and the other things are a little gravy.” That would make it sound like Murphy might have lost his dedication to football, but he quickly added clarification.
“The first time in my life having to take time off from being a coach was tremendously difficult and humbling,” Murphy said. “It reinforced that I love coaching college football, I love working with kids, and I especially love working at Harvard and working with these kids. It reinforced how much this means to me.”
In all, it was a touching—and telling—moment.
If those aforementioned offensive players’ names don’t get you excited now, they will by week five. Murphy’s history with second-year starting QBs is nearly flawless. Giving him an electric running back and a dominant, experienced offensive line to go with Hempel is close to unfair.
Yes, there are questions on defense, but I think Murphy will find answers. The pass defense was sixth in the league last year anyway, so it’s not like the team lost all-time greats. The linebacking corps this year should be reliable. Zach Hodges should be more dependable, particularly late in games. And Hayes should be a surer tackler. Put that all together, as Murphy would say, and you’ve got a respectable if not immovable defense.
Ultimately, the title is going to Princeton or Harvard, and I think the Crimson has what it takes to beat the Tigers after two losing efforts. Princeton did score 51 points in the epic last year, but 16 of those came in overtime; the defense did enough to win. It was three Hempel turnovers, two stalled overtime drives, and one Easton injury that swung the balance to the Orange and Black. I don’t see any of that happening this time around, and that’s why I envision another conference championship for Murphy and the 10,000 men.
PENN (4-6, 3-4)
-Tuesday’s media teleconference doubled as an Al Bagnoli lovefest, as each coach took time out of their opening statement to salute the league’s elder statesman before his final season. Bagnoli then thanked everyone for their kind words and reflected on his 22 previous seasons, adding that he hopes he ends up with 23 great seasons.
-Last year was just Bagnoli’s second losing venture, but he said it will help the Quakers this year. “I think we got humbled a little bit,” Bagnoli said. “I think our guys are much more intuned with what we want and how to go about it.”
-Sophomore quarterback Alek Torgersen will have a big say in how Bagnoli goes out. The signal-caller has talent, his coach said, but limited experience. Bagnoli added, “We have a real diamond in the rough,” but I’m not sure he used that expression the right way.
-Bagnoli also made an interesting comment regarding scheduling. This year, Penn will face Jacksonville of the Pioneer League, another league that does not offer football scholarships, rather than facing a Patriot League team after the Patriot League recently allowed football scholarships. The Pioneer League would be a good long-term match, except for the fact the schools are all in the Southeast, greatly increasing travel costs. Bagnoli said the league is going to have to deal with the issue of finding non-conference opponents now that the Patriot League, a long-time scheduling partner, offers scholarships.
Getting back to the field, Penn is the hardest team to predict this year. For now, I will give Bagnoli the benefit of the doubt. He deserves it. I see last year’s stumble as an anomaly, and I think the Quakers will fight to send Bagnoli out on top. Though a bunch of young players will be thrown into the fire, they will all be experienced by the time Harvard travels to Philadelphia in week nine.
PRINCETON (8-2, 6-1)
-How did the Princeton office react to finishing first in the poll just two years after being placed last? Coach Bob Surace said football communications director Craig Saxon came down to the coach’s office bearing the news and offering to go out and buy celebratory champagne. Surace declined, saying he does not care at all about the honor. That’s your report from Princeton, N.J.
-In this year’s edition of exciting suggestions from fresh-faced coaches, Surace laid out his favorite scheduling idea: split the league into East and West divisions, have a conference champion, and send the winner to the FCS playoffs. “That would be beautiful,” Surace said. Keep dreamin’, Bob.
-As for the team on the field, Surace said he’s been excited by the competition between wide receivers and defensive backs. He thinks he’ll be strong in both spots, and returning Ivy League Player of the Year quarterback Quinn Epperly should guide another potent Tiger attack.
-If this coaching thing doesn’t work out for Surace, he sounds like he’d make a great motivational speaker or monk. Surace spent much of his opening statement talking about some Japanese word for improvement, internal expectations, and constant growth.
2013 proved that 2012 was not a fluke and that Surace has Princeton back in the Ivy penthouse. Losing defensive tackle Caraun Reid to the NFL hurts, but he was not all that disruptive against Harvard. Surely losing an outright title in the final game of last year will motivate this team, and you can just about pencil them in for a top three finish this season.
Take a moment to look back at the 2012 poll, where Dartmouth and Princeton ranked in the bottom three with Columbia. I suppose there is hope for the Lions.
YALE (5-5, 3-4)
-The biggest quarterback battle in the Ancient Eight is raging in New Haven. Coach Tony Reno said Tuesday that Morgan Roberts and Logan Scott have risen above the competition, and that Roberts holds the No. 1 distinction for now. Roberts, a transfer from Clemson, was rushed onto the field a little ahead of schedule last year, Reno said, and has picked up the playbook much better this offseason.
-There is uncertainty at the other backfield position as well, as Reno sounded unsure about Tyler Varga’s health. Unlike in previous years, Yale does have some depth at that position now though, which would comfort the blow of another Varga absence.
-Reno twice referenced Harvard in an answer, but neither time did he actually say the word, ‘Harvard.’ Something to look out for in future press conferences.
It took Surace three years to get Princeton to 5-5, but Reno managed it in year two. Now, it’s time to see if he can take the next step that Surace landed so smoothly, or if the Bulldogs will get stuck in second gear. The team still seems to be thin on top-line talent, so I see another year of average before we can really judge what Reno is capable of in Connecticut.