Monday, April 25, 2016

Who’s the Dark Horse?

Troy Jones Scoring a TD against Columbia in the 1997 season opener. This was the breakout game for the Harvard football program

Thanks to great recruiting and the brilliant parking of many committed players in prep schools for PG years, a lot of people believe Yale is poised for a breakthrough year this season or perhaps in 2017.

But Based on this report, there really isn’t much to suggest Yale is poised for greatness this fall. Of course, a lot of those super freshmen won’t join the team until August so stay tuned. 

But if 2016 turns out to be a dud for the Bulldogs, I feel like Tony Reno will have only one more year to make Yale a winner before he’s out. The pressure is on.

I’m not sure that pressure will produce good results in New Haven.

So if the favorite dark horse team doesn’t make that move this fall, which team will?

Every year, an unexpected team shoots into the top three of the Ivies. Last year it was Penn, which by season’s end was playing the best football in the Ivies and ended up tied for the title. In 2014, it was Yale. And 2013 was all about Princeton’s surprise rise to a shared Ivy championship.

Penn’s four win improvement in league games from 2014 to 2015 is an extremely rare occurrence in Ivy history. A four win improvement has only happened nine total times in the 60 seasons of official Ivy football. And only two other times did that improvement result in a title of any kind.

But the greatest one season improvement in total Ivy wins over the course of just one season was achieved by the 1997 Harvard Crimson who went from 2-5 in league play in ’96 to a 7-0 undisputed title season a year later. Since that jump in what was the fourth season under Tim Murphy, Harvard has been the most dominant Ivy team overall.

Here’s a look at the 10 total four and four game Ivy win improvements, year-over-year

Five Game Improvements (1)

1997 Harvard (2-5 in 1996 to 7-0 in 1997 and an Ivy title)

Four Win Improvements  (9)

1959 Yale (0-7 in 1958 to 4-3 in 1959)

1971 Columbia (1-6 in 1970 to 5-2 in 1971)

1979 Princeton (1-4-1 in 1978 to 5-2 in 1979)

1982 Penn (1-6 in 1981 to 5-2 in 1982 and a shared Ivy title)

1986 Cornell (2-5 in 1985 to 6-1 in 1986)

1990 Cornell (2-5 in 1989 to 6-1 in 1990 and a shared Ivy title)

1999 Cornell (1-6 in 1998 to 5-2 in 1999)

2004 Cornell (0-7 in 2003 to 4-3 in 2004)

2015 Penn (2-5 in 2014 to 6-1 in 2015 and a shared Ivy title)

It’s probably just a quirk that Cornell has pulled off the four-win improvement feat more times than any other program. But it’s statistically significant that when Penn did it last season it was the first time in 11 years anyone had achieved it.

The bad news for Columbia and Cornell is that an improvement of four games or better has never happened in consecutive seasons.

Transformations from Ivy bottom dwellers to champions are usually much more gradual. And that’s something that seems likely to continue in a league where no one graduates early. Dartmouth’s path from 0-10 in 2008 to champs in 2015 is a bit longer than the usual waiting period, but the Big Green were serious contenders about two years earlier than that. So perhaps that sets the bar at a more realistic 5 years or so before fans should start to question a team or coaching staff that’s made no visible movement out of the cellar.

If Columbia improves by three Ivy wins from 1-6 to 4-3 this fall, no one would deny that would be a historic jump. A four-win improvement is almost beyond imagination. But it is something Head Coach Al Bagnoli has never done, even with the turnaround jobs he accomplished at Penn over the years.

It’s good to know Bagnoli won’t be just trying for an even 10 Ivy titles during his tenure at Columbia.

Any Others?

A few other pundits believe Princeton will be the surprise team this year after a disappointing 2014 and a generally weak 2015. I like the Tigers running attack, but I’m not sold on the rest of the team.

I’m usually a big believer in Coach Phil Estes and Brown, but there’s still a lot of holes to fill on a Bears team that is going through one of its longer droughts lately.

Cornell just doesn’t seem like much of a threat at all.

You could argue that if Dartmouth wins four Ivy games or more that the Big Green would be a dark horse surprise because everyone is expecting a big drop-off in Hanover this year.

But it seems more likely that if there’s going to be a breakout team this season, it’s going to be Columbia. Even though I’d argue going from being totally uncompetitive for two years to being competitive in nine games out of ten last year was almost a breakout situation for the Lions in 2015. 


oldlion said...

We lost 6 games by one possession. That is a formula for a breakout year.

Big Dawg said...


This year is not so much about improved talent for us, which we have, but about poise and grace under pressure. Now should be when the coaching element starts to have marked influence, and the team is the beneficiary of the breaks rather than the victim.

Anonymous said...

A LOT of new players makes this season a wildcard. It's anybody's title to lose. Harvard is quite deep of course but it's not a quantum leap to play at their level. Consistency, having key players healthy, retaining offensive possession and finishing long drives, not turning it over, staying penalty free, getting some breaks and making some big plays that shift momentum, playing strong D. Not a complicated formula. Oh, and a change at placekicker will be a difference maker for sure.