The Unforeseen Rise of the Vulnerable Front Runner

No-Fly Zone
Sophomore linebacker Joey Goodman dives for the tackle on Saturday against Rhode Island, but ends up empty-handed.

In three Ivy League matches, this Columbia football team has achieved something no other Lions squad in the last five years could do in an entire season—it’s won three games. Sitting at 3-0, the team can outdo its win total from each of the last 20 seasons with one more victory.

The undefeated record is enough to put Columbia atop the division, a place where it has only finished once before. The Lions’ ascent to the forefront of the Ivy League began two seasons ago with the recruitment of head coach Al Bagnoli. Now in his 26th year in the league, the veteran spent 23 seasons at Penn, a majority of his coaching tenure.

As the Quakers head coach, Bagnoli racked up a 112-49 conference record in addition to nine division championship rings. After a 2-8 season in 2014, Bagnoli retired. Then he didn’t. He returned to coaching to lead a Columbia group that had gone 0-7 that same year. With nowhere to go but up, the Lions have consistently improved since that rock-bottom season. Bagnoli’s first campaign in New York mirrored his last in Pennsylvania, 2-8. Last year, Columbia went 3-7. Now it sits perfect, 6-0.

To claim six wins, the Lions have beaten some of the best teams in the conference. With four schools—Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Princeton—tied for second place with 2-1 records, the latter two can attribute their lone division loss to the Lions. The same Tigers team that dropped 52 points on Harvard fell to Columbia at home.


Still, the Ancient Eight crown is anything but guaranteed.

One test will come this weekend, when the Lions take on the Bulldogs, one of the two 2-1 teams that they have yet to beat. Columbia is favored to win, but not by much. Yale’s one conference loss came against Dartmouth, when the Big Green overcame a 21-point deficit to win by one. That same Dartmouth team fell by five points in its matchup with the Lions.

Moreover, Yale and Columbia share wins over Penn, though the Lions’ came in overtime and the Bulldogs took their game by five. Spanning its three conference matchups, Columbia’s margin of victory totals 12 points. All of this is to say that a Yale victory on Saturday would not be surprising.

A win for the Bulldogs this weekend would tie them for the top spot in the division, leading to a shared championship, supposing both teams win out. Even Princeton can get a share of the trophy if Yale tops the Lions and then the Tigers beat the Bulldogs and the rest of their opponents. Dartmouth still controls its fate, as well. The Big Green has a shot if it wins out and someone, anyone, beats Columbia. Cornell also remains in the running, and a matchup with the Lions still looms toward the latter end of its season.

Even the Crimson, despite receiving a 52-17 thrashing at the hands of Princeton, has a path to the championship trophy. Supposing Yale wins every game but “The Game,” and Harvard wins out—downing Columbia along the way, the Crimson, Lions, Bulldogs and others could all share top conference honors.

However, the chances of that happening are very slim. The last time a team won the Ivy League title with two losses was 1982, when Harvard, the Quakers, and Big Green all tied at 5-2 with four other teams tied for fourth with 3-4 records.

In last place, Penn does not have a shot at the top spot, but the team does have a chance to ruin someone else’s season. The team is a lot better than its 0-3 record would portray. The Quakers lost to the league-leader in overtime and suffered two other defeats—to Dartmouth and Yale—by a combined eight points. Penn is grasping for its first win and will likely get it this week against the Bears. The Quakers hope to play spoiler against their three final opponents—the Tigers, Crimson, and Big Red.

In other words, everything is up for grabs right now. This weekend will go a long way in determining who can muster the strength to advance a viable campaign.

The remaining path to the title game may be toughest for Harvard. The Crimson must still face two of the 2-1 teams—the Bulldogs and Big Green—in addition to Columbia and the Quakers.

The Lions, on the other hand, have a historically easy last two games of the season against Cornell and Brown. Typically, in past seasons, correspondents have paid attention to these last two games to see if the program will be able to pick up its first win of the season. This year, assuming Columbia continues to win, those last two matchups will determine whether the Ancient Eight crown is heading back to New York City for only the second time ever and for the first time since 1961.

—Staff writer Cade Palmer can be reached at