Out of Conference Games: Good for the Ancient Eight?

Freshman Breakthrough
Freshman running back Aaron Shampklin breaks free into the second level in last week’s decisive victory over Lafayette. To date, Shampklin is second on the Crimson in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns behind junior back Charlie Booker.

Loss, win, win, loss, win.

So reads the Harvard football team’s schedule from the season opener against Rhode Island to last week’s victory over Lafayette. Thus far, Harvard has not proven itself as the top Ivy League contender, nor has it fallen by the wayside as a pretender. Fittingly, it is nearly impossible to gauge the Ivy League as a whole—upsets have abounded, and it seems like with every passing week predictions become harder and harder to make.

The midway point is generally the time of year when we start to see separation in the league standings. However, only Penn and Brown have lost twice, and Penn still has the capability for a second-half resurgence. With the culmination of out-of-conference play, the next few weeks should finally give us some idea of the direction in which the league is headed.

Now that Harvard has played its last non-conference opponent of the season, it can home in on the second half of its schedule. This year, none of the final five teams are pushovers. Harvard will have to contend with undefeated Dartmouth and Columbia, league favorite Princeton, Penn and its juggernaut offense, and an upstart Yale squad.


Though half the season has passed, Harvard and its Ivy brethren have only played two league games apiece. Three non-conference games comprise the early part of the schedule, forming a pseudo-preseason. Since these games do not count in the league standings and have no bearing on championship determination, coaches are free to rest top players or give inexperienced players more time on the field.

As one would expect, the Ivy League lives and breathes tradition. The makeup of the conference has not changed from its official inception in 1954, as the same “Ancient Eight” schools battle for the league championship year after year. The football crown is decided by record within the league, rather than with a winner-take-all game like many athletic conferences across the nation.

Each Ivy team plays seven league games in a season, and to extend the schedule to 10 weeks, each team also schedules three non-conference opponents per year. There are some merits to playing non-league teams—for instance, Harvard has had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., and San Diego, Calif., in the past five years to play Georgetown and the University of San Diego.

The non-conference bouts are also crucial in breaking up the yearly monotony of the Ivy League schedule. Since 2000, Harvard has played each Ivy opponent in the same order: Brown is the first league game of the season, followed by Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn. Harvard-Yale closes out the fall.

In the long run, however, I believe games outside the Ivy League do both teams and their fans a disservice. Attendance at non-league games is generally poor. Take Harvard’s matchup with Georgetown at the massive RFK Stadium as an example—despite the large alumni fanbases of both schools in the D.C. area, the official attendance was merely 3,256. This figure even accounts for the fans who streamed out the exits at halftime with Harvard leading, 31-2. It is a tall task to draw a sizeable crowd when the game does not really count and is likely going to be a blowout.

On top of paltry attendance figures, the concept of tune-up games is misguided. Though periodic rest is important for players who are expected to play the majority of the season’s snaps, games against inferior competition do not lead to improvement. I am a firm believer in the conventional sports wisdom that one needs to face off against better players and better teams until there is no better team to play.

This year, the Crimson has victories against Georgetown (by 39 points) and Lafayette (by 28 points). The team uncharacteristically lost its season opener to Rhode Island, but as has been noted many times before, Harvard typically dominates teams outside the Ancient Eight. Last year, a loss to Holy Cross snapped a streak of 16 straight victories in non-league games. Is it possible that these barely competitive games mess with a team’s sense of urgency? See Harvard’s loss to Cornell a week after a blowout win against Georgetown.

The only possible solution to this issue would be changing the Ancient Eight to the Ancient Eleven. The Ivy League has pondered adding teams in the past, most notably in 1982. Army, Navy, and Northwestern were the schools in consideration, but ultimately the powers that be rejected these additions. Decades removed from the official formation of the league and with few considerable changes since then, this option is unrealistic at best.

Most likely, the Ivy League will just keep on keeping on. After all, a change is not really urgent, and a season played solely against other Ancient Eight squads would mean three fewer weeks of football. I think I speak for the thousands of football diehards on Harvard’s campus when I say that no one wants that outcome.

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at


Recommended Articles