Monday, August 21, 2017

Columbia Football Preview 2017




Columbia's 2017 season is firmly in Anders Hill's hands


SUPER CLIFF NOTES VERSION:

The Strengths

The Lions best positives are the offensive line, the wide receivers, and the special teams. Also "better than average" are the defensive line, the secondary, and the starting QB. That’s not a bad set of weapons by Columbia standards and really compared to the whole league, these positives make a good case for the Lions to have a chance to finish in the top half of the Ivies.

The Weaknesses

Columbia doesn’t have weaknesses as much as it has question marks right now. But in Ivy League Football, question marks are where you usually find the problems. Columbia’s biggest question marks are at QB depth, running back, and linebacker inexperience. Any one of them could blow up into a full scale problem with the biggest black swan being if Hill is injured at QB. Unlike the perennial powerhouses like Penn and Harvard, you can’t just assume that the incoming freshmen or this year’s untested sophomores have a 50-50 shot to fill these holes. The good news is that the guy who made Penn generally a reloading power in on our side these days.




NOW FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO DO THE REAL READING

Checking the Returns on the Bagnoli Investment: Year 2

The benefits were obvious during the first year of the extraordinary and courageous choice by Columbia President Lee Bollinger to spend the big bucks and bring Al Bagnoli out of his brief retirement. In 2015, the Lions finally ended the string of two straight 0-10 seasons, won two games, and were competitive in every game but one.

Moving on to year two, the benefits were just as great even if they weren’t immediately clear to everyone. For one thing, the Lions went from two wins to three. Perhaps that improvement in the number of wins wasn’t good enough for some fans, especially since Columbia let very winnable games against St. Francis, Georgetown, Cornell, and to some degree Yale, get away.


Josh Wainright & Family

But there were other super important improvements when you look closer. On the top of the list is that no fewer than five of the Bagnoli staff’s recruits made a significant impact as top players on the team. They were freshmen WR’s Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith, DL Daniel DeLorenzi, PK Oren Milstein, and sophomore OL Tyler Schonewolf, who was a late pickup for the 2015 incoming freshmen class when Bagnoli first took over. Milstein was the only one of this group to make 1st Team All Ivy, but the rest were game changers too. All except DeLorenzi were starters. And DeLorenzi was a very effective 3rd down pass rush specialist who made probably the most important sack for the Lions in 2016 with his take down of Wagner QB Alex Thomson that saved the 15-13 win.

Off the field, the completion and use of the off season practice bubble was another development only Bagnoli and the respect he commands could make happen.

Now comes a crucial year three where the returns on the Bagnoli investment must result in more wins and a few more All Ivy level players showing themselves on the field. Imagine if four or five more guys like Wainwright, Schonewolf, and Milstein emerge this season. Imagine if they don’t.

Here’s what Bagnoli and his staff are facing this fall: 



The Captains: Baty, Hyeamang, Hill, and Wales (pic from the CU Football Twitter account)


A lot’s on Anders

So much of Columbia’s 2017 season rides on the head, shoulders, arm, legs, and every other body part that belongs to QB Anders Hill.

Hill, who we know has the brains as an Academic All Ivy honoree, needs to have a good season. But he absolutely must stay healthy as the rest of the QB depth chart is a major question right now.

The good news is that Hill had a better 2016 season than many could have expected. Remember, he came into 2016 expecting to be the reliever/backup and take maybe 30% of the snaps. But with Skyler Mornhinweg ’17 unable to really recover from injuries, Hill got a trial by fire that in retrospect he handled extremely well. His stats were pretty strong by recent Columbia standards. Hill completed about 54% of his passes, had a 10-8 TD/INT ratio, and he was often a spectacular runner.  Most Ivy teams would be happy to have a returning QB with that kind of experience and skill set coming into his senior year.

Hill’s key problem was taking too many sacks. Most of the 36 sacks CU absorbed last season were not really the offensive line’s fault, and that’s something Hill and Columbia have to reverse this fall. And the good news there is that the coaches are well aware of that problem and have been able to focus heavily on it this off season. And Hill also has the good news of getting a very experienced and talented offensive line to work with as well.

The other good news is Hill has one of the best receiving talent Columbia has enjoyed in years. Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith were excellent as freshmen and became the top receivers on the team. Their fellow sophomore Christian Everett proved to be another great option.

At least one of the tight ends, Kyle Baskin, Rory Schlageter, Ben Hill and Zach Dansby, are poised to make a much bigger impact in 2017. Remember that the coaches really liked Baskin in training camp last year as a freshman, but he was knocked out of the season in game one. All QB’s really need a solid TE target to rely on. The last time Columbia was truly a competitive team, the stellar Andrew Kennedy ’11, filled that role. The team has struggled without him ever since.

The bad news is that Hill can’t rely on the usual Bagnoli recipe of spending about 25% of each game safely avoiding injury on the sidelines while a relief QB is in the game. With the transfer of Hunter Petlansky, the Lions don’t even have a proven backup who can come in for any snaps at all. It will take some time to find out who will give Hill those breaks.

And who’s going to step up as an effective running back to keep at least some of the heat off Hill and the pass protection unit? The graduation of Alan Watson leaves this position wide open. The most experienced senior RB with good running tools is Chris Schroer. But this feels like a position where there’s going to be a lot of competition in training camp and probably well into the season for the top spot. Sophomore Tanner Thomas got into a good amount of games as a freshman last season and showed some talent for finding the end zone in short yardage situations. Fellow sophomore Lynnard Rose is a great all-around athlete, (he made his way onto the Columbia Baseball team this spring too), who seems like he might be best suited for catching passes out of the backfield. And incoming freshmen Broderick Taylor and Marquavious Moore both look very talented.

Even if Hill stays 100% healthy all season long, Columbia needs to develop a backup and heir-apparent right away. It’s hard to say who the leading candidates are, but we know their general skill sets. Sophomore Matt Dame is the pure passer type with a lot of upside if he can continue bulking up and working on mobility. Junior Ryan Suitt is a more of a runner and has good experience with this staff. Freshman Josh Bean has all the looks of a QB on the rise who is developing at the right time for an Ivy program. Had he had the kind of season as a junior that he had as a senior last year, he might not have been the kind of recruit Columbia could snag. The more established-at-QB freshman is Dillon Davis from Texas, who will be interesting if he can show that he can adapt to Ivy football and life in the big city. Because Hill is a senior, the #2 QB slot is going to be one of the more important blanks to fill this year.

2017 isn’t all about Hill, but it’s mostly about him. If he has an All Ivy 2nd Team or better type of season, the Lions could enjoy a winning record. If he’s injured or he puts up worse numbers than last year, Columbia will really struggle to match last year’s three win total.


Second Biggest Factor

Columbia is returning its most experienced and talented offensive line since 2009. That was the group led by Jeff Adams and Bob Hauschildt. Yes, the only All Ivy recognized player last year on the O-line was Kendall Pace, and he’s gone to graduation and currently with the Washington Redskins. But a closer look shows that four key starters are back for 2017, including some standouts. RT-turned-LT and Co-Captain Bewley Wales will lead the group as a senior along with his fellow starters last year, junior LG Charlie Flores and junior C Tyler Shonewolf. Also back is senior Markham Pakune, who started the last two games of 2016. Also coming back for 2017 with some actual game action under their belts are senior Ben Robbins, sophomore Parker Coogan, senior Michael McGrath, and senior Reid Stables. McGrath may be atop the depth chart for the open slot right now. And this list doesn’t include some of the talented sophomores who could make a run at getting some playing time this season like Joseph Scowden, John Fischer, and Lamine Nouck-A-Nwal.

And anyone watching the CU offensive line, which was really nowhere before the 2015 season, can see the real improvements that have been made on this unit. The rushing stats prove that. And again, while sacks allowed haven’t improved, Hill’s issues with taking too many sacks makes that problem less of an offensive line responsibility. 

Columbia needs the O-line to play up to its experience in 2017 and pave the way for Hill to have a healthy season and a new running back or two emerge as legitimate offensive weapons. Having this much returning experience in the most key unit on any football team is rare at the Ivy League level. The Lions must take as much advantage of it as possible.

Linebacker Questions

A wise ex-coach told me that you win in football with defense and you get a good defense mostly by recruiting the best linebackers. That makes sense, since a good linebacker can stuff the run, rush the passer, and break up passes. Columbia loses all three of its starting linebackers from 2016, including 1st Team All Ivy Gianmarco Rea. But this is where the Columbia is hoping to see its most significant recruiting upgrade. Three linebackers showed promise last season in their freshman years: Michael Murphy, Matt Tofano, and Jalen Williams. I think all three will be CU’s starting linebackers this fall, but Bagnoli mentioned that junior Sean White is in the mix too. And there is some significant freshman talent coming in with Justin Woodley. A tough loss is Levi McQuinn, who had enormous talent but has left the team due to nagging injuries.

The scary thing is that none of the people on the team now have started in a college game and they have a big burden to carry. But this could just as very well be a strength on this team. If it does, then a lot of bets are off about this program needing another two or three years before it’s a contender.

The funny thing is that we can expect to hear every Ivy pundit going on and on about how great the linebacking crew was last year and how Columbia is doomed with all three starters graduating. These are the same pundits who didn’t think anything about Columbia but Bagnoli was good a year ago. Sometimes it hurts your perspective to be too close to a program, but being closer to this one gives the fairly objective observer the clarity to see that the linebackers will be okay this year and potentially very good.



Cameron Roane

The D-Line and Secondary: Hidden Gems

Last year there was a big fear that the surprisingly dominant defensive line of 2015 suffered too many graduation losses to stay strong in 2016. But there was only a slight drop off in D-line effectiveness last year and that was thanks to some new blood that will be back and with more size and experience. The unit will still be led by seniors Lord Hyeamang, Dominic Perkovic, and Connor Heeb. Having three talented returning senior starters, one of them a 2nd Team All Ivy last year, (Hyeamang), is a rarity for an Ivy defensive line. Perkovic was a force as a sophomore, but dealt with some injury issues last year. Junior Mike Hinton started in nine games last year and is also back. There’s also good senior help available from the converted linebacker Alexander Holmes, who could be a lethal weapon with his height and now that he’s grown into the size needed for his position.

Getting back to that young blood, the leader in that category on the D-line is sophomore DeLorenzi, with the often overlooked fellow sophomore Arman Samouk making a good impact too. Michael Geraghty, who looked promising as a freshman last year, has left the team, but don’t be surprised if sophomores Alex Robin and LinDon Harris get more playing time too this fall. The most promising looking freshman is Andrew Nichols, but he may have a tough time breaking in this year with this deep unit.

And it is a very deep and exciting group for Columbia, even though Hyeamang seems to be the only player on everyone’s radar coming into the season. The bet is that by midseason, some of the other names above will be familiar to more non-Columbia fans.

The secondary doesn’t seem to be as deep, but is blessed with some unusually good returning talent. The leader here is Cameron Roane, back for his senior year after an impressive All Ivy campaign in 2016. 5th year senior Denzel Hill will be the other corner after blossoming quickly into a real weapon last season when he switched to the secondary from wide receiver. Tall and lean CB’s who can cover WR’s and pick off passes are rare in the Ivies and he has the speed to be a force in this new role. Something about him reminds me of Steve Cargile ’04, who made the switch to the secondary from WR 15 years ago for Columbia and ended up playing in the NFL.

A surprise star in the defensive backfield last season was safety Landon Baty, who was a tackling machine for the Lions and is back for his senior campaign where he'll be one of the team captains. That leaves the other safety position open, but Ben McKeighan might have the inside track for that spot now. He’ll have competition though, especially since two of Columbia’s top incoming freshmen in Blake Wooden and Will Allen are both DB’s.

Bottom line, Columbia has four starters returning on the D-line and three starters returning in the secondary from two units that played very well last season. If you’ve been following Lion football for a decade or more, you know this is an unusually nice situation coming into a new season.


Oren Milstein


Special Teams Magic

Milstein really saved Columbia’s hide more than once last season and is only a sophomore now. He was directly responsible for two of the Lions’ three wins and his future looks bright.

The Lions did pretty well with the two-pronged punting attack of now-graduated tandem of Cameron Nizialek and Matthew Panton. But one of the top incoming freshmen punters in college football in Drew Schmid is now on board. 

The return game is another area where Columbia might stand out in the Ivies. Wainwright and Rose showed potential as punt and kickoff returners last season. But the big x-factor is freshman Darion Achido, who drew national attention as a return specialist last year.

This is probably one of the best, if not the best overall special teams units in the Ivies. And special teams can make the difference in a lot of games.


Wide Eyed Receivers: Ronald Smith and Josh Wainwright (pic from the CU Twitter account)


The Schedule

Columbia’s schedule is by no means “easy” this season, but it’s been a while since it was this favorably tilted. Two of the three teams predicted to be the best in the Ivies this year, Penn and Harvard, come to Wien Stadium this year. And the other team in the predicted top three, Princeton, will likely be playing without its best player -- John Lovett -- when the Lions travel to New Jersey to face the Tigers in week three.

The out of conference slate looks promising as well. The season home opener is against a Wagner team that Columbia knows it can defeat, (the Lions have beaten the Seahawks two years running), a Georgetown team Columbia knows it should have defeated two years running, and a Marist squad that looks like it’s out of its league playing almost any Ivy team. Columbia probably needs to win all three of these games to prove it’s a contender, but a 2-1 record against these teams wouldn’t be fatal either. Wagner is the x-factor team as it has some good talent returning and will surely want to get some revenge for its two-year losing streak to CU. 

Having to take on teams like Dartmouth, Yale, and Cornell on the road will make things harder but those all still look like winnable games at least for now. The only other thing to remember is that Columbia’s two most distant Ivy rivals in terms of mileage, Cornell and Dartmouth, are both road games this year. The last time the Lions beat Dartmouth and Cornell on the road in the same season was 2001.

Conclusions

On paper and on instinct, this certainly looks like the best Columbia team in several years. But we all know that’s a relative statement from a program that was riding a 24-game losing streak less than two years ago. But the talent and experience on this team have to lead even some objective observers to admit it’s a group that could have a winning season, if not contend for the Ivy title. Columbia has three winnable non-conference games, a home contest against a team it routed last season on the road, and faces a league where even the expected elite teams all have more than the usual serious questions buzzing around them.

And most importantly, unlike any time since Lou Little was the head coach, the Lions have someone with a very long history of winning seasons in this league under his belt at the helm in Bagnoli. 

The Lions have some serious obstacles and potential pitfalls to overcome for sure, but the nucleus of a competitive program that could go .500 or even a bit better is here. For most teams, that’s the norm. Now it is for Columbia as well. 

Florida Playmaker & Fast DL




I have to admit, I'm excited about this one. 6-1 180 pound WR Mikey Roussos  from River Ridge HS in New Port Richey, Florida, has committed to Columbia. When I first saw his video a couple of months ago when he was offered, it was hard not to be very impressed with his ability to make things happen when he gets the ball.

Roussos really grabbed the coaches' attention at one of our football camps this summer, where he improved his 40 time to 4.5.

According to my LionFeeders Columbia recruiting history site, Roussos will be the first River Ridge grad to come to Columbia Football. 





Also committing this weekend was 6-5, 250 pound DL Drake Morey from Ashland HS in Ashland, OR. Morey chose Columbia over an offer from the Air Force Academy. Morey will be the first documented Ashland grad to come to Columbia football. 


This extensive profile of Morey talks about his off season work.
That brings our list on reported commits for 2018 to eight:

1) Inho Choi DB 6-1 175 lbs. Holy Names HS Windsor, Ontario/Deerfield Academy

2) Devin Hart LB 6-1 212 lbs. McEachem HS Powder Springs, GA

3) Drake Morey DL 6-5 250 lbs. Ashland HS Ashland, OR

4) Chris Park WR 5-11 175 lbs. Junipero Serra HS San Mateo, CA

5) Brandon Radice TE 6-4, 205 lbs. Ridge HS Basking Ridge, NJ

6) Mikey Roussos WR 6-1 180 pounds River Ridge HS New Port Richey, FL

7) Mitchell Sturgill DB 6-1, 185 lbs Bellevue HS Bellevue, WA

8) Watson Tansil LB 6-3, 215 lbs. Franklin Road Academy Nashville, TN

Friday, August 18, 2017

Northern Exposure


Inho Choi


It's been a while since Columbia snagged a player from north of the border, but Ontario's 6-2, 175 pound DB Inho Choi committed to the Lions Thursday.

Choi will do a PG year at Deerfield Academy this year, but his football calling card so far is a two-year stint on the Team Canada under-18 football team. He attended Holy Names HS in Windsor, Ontario.

Choi will be the first Holy Names grad to come to Columbia.

The best Canadian player in recent Columbia history was Tad Crawford '07, who was also a DB and went on to enjoy a long career in the CFL.

But while Columbia has snagged 16 players from Deerfield over the years, including the great QB Archie Roberts '65, it's been a whopping 27 years since the last one, (Mark Coady '94), came on board.

That brings our list on reported commits for 2018 to six:

1) Inho Choi DB 6-1 175 lbs. Holy Names HS Windsor, Ontario/Deerfield Academy

2) Devin Hart LB 6-1 212 lbs. McEachem HS Powder Springs, GA

3) Chris Park WR 5-11 175 lbs. Junipero Serra HS San Mateo, CA

4) Brandon Radice TE 6-4, 205 lbs. Ridge HS Basking Ridge, NJ

5) Mitchell Sturgill DB 6-1, 185 lbs Bellevue HS Bellevue, WA

6) Watson Tansil LB 6-3, 215 lbs. Franklin Road Academy Nashville, TN


Good Site

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to Bruce Wood's Big Green Alert Premium site for some very good inside coverage of not just Dartmouth football, but all Ivy football. On the site now is his preview of Columbia and Brown, plus a look at Dartmouth's out of conference foes.

Monday, August 14, 2017

2017 Opponent Preview: Brown


Thomas Linta

Columbia's best game of 2016, in fact its best game of the Al Bagnoli era, was the 31-13 season finale win over Brown in Providence.

It was the latest example of a slow bleed in the Bears program that's been going on since 2013. And what Brown is facing this season is the biggest example of why things have deteriorated overall: The reloading mechanism is jammed.

By that, I mean a longstanding tradition on Head Coach Phil Estes of Brown being able to reload top level skill position players, especially quarterbacks and wide receivers, has become a lot less reliable.

With so many new players at the skill positions this year, we'll get an emphatic answer on whether the recruiting issues are getting back to normal or becoming a nagging problem.

OFFENSE 

Brown came around to settling on a pretty good QB last year by mid-season in Thomas Linta. But he still needs some fine-tuning to cut down on his interceptions and increase his completion percentage. In the Columbia game, the Bears also used Nicholas Duncan at QB and he was a shifty scrambler that lacked really good throwing prowess. Linta will get the nod this year and seems like a better choice.

But Brown will also try to create its own wildcat/slash type QB attack the same way Princeton does with John Lovett. Sophomore Livingstone Harriott is the guy they're going to try in that role and he could make things interesting.

Three starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, including both Matthew and Dakota Girard who each made 2nd Team All Ivy. TE Anton Casey, who started to make an impact as a sophomore last season.

But the once feared Brown wide receiving corps is without 1st Team All Ivy Alex Jette, who's gone to graduation. Also gone are Troy Doles and Swanky Garrett, who were the #2 and #3 WR's last year.

Running back Johnny Pena is also gone to graduation, but sophomore Livinstone Harriott could be an upgrade at that position after he looked good in limited duty last year.

DEFENSE

The defensive line is where the best returning talent on this Brown team can be found with DE Richard Jarvis coming back for a 5th year after leading the Ivies in tackles for a loss last year with 18.5. But standout linebackers Will Twyman and Tylki are gone to graduation.

In the secondary, impressive DB Connor Coughlin returns after a very good year defending the pass and the run. Terrell Smith also looks like he can be an impact player all season long.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The biggest loss is Jette, who was pretty lethal doing double duty as a WR and punt returner. Jette had an incredible 17 yards per punt return average last season.

But the good news for Brown is walk-on placekicker Ben Rosenblatt is back after emailing Coach Estes and getting a chance to start just a few days later and kicking a 52-yard FG in the win over Dartmouth.

Punter Ryan Kopec was a strong player last year and also returns.

CONCLUSIONS

Brown has so many key players to replace this year on both sides of the ball, it's insane to expect too much of the Bears this year, (I hope the guy who voted Brown to win the league in the media poll is listening). Anything the Bears do this season to be competitive will be a bonus and perhaps a vote of confidence in Estes to keep trying to get back to the top of the league.

Taking on a Project


Brandon Radice

Columbia's 5th publicly confirmed commit for the fall of 2018 is an interesting example of how some recruiters look at high school players.

6-4, 205 pound Brandon Radice was supposed to start at QB last year for Ridge HS in Basking Ridge, NJ. But he got injured with a broken collarbone and he missed the season.

But that's not all. Radice had been a running back until the end of his sophomore year when his coaches moved him to QB. And now, he's listed as a TE by the Columbia recruiters.

Obviously, despite very little experience at any one position in high school the Columbia coaches see some potential for Radice and are banking on being able to develop him properly at the college level.

Incredibly, Radice will be the first documented Ridge HS grad to come to Columbia Football. 

That brings our list on reported commits for 2018 to five:


1) Devin Hart LB 6-1 212 lbs. McEachem HS Powder Springs, GA

2) Chris Park WR 5-11 175 lbs. Junipero Serra HS San Mateo, CA

3) Brandon Radice TE 6-4, 205 lbs. Ridge HS Basking Ridge, NJ

4) Mitchell Sturgill DB 6-1, 185 lbs Bellevue HS Bellevue, WA

5) Watson Tansil LB 6-3, 215 lbs. Franklin Road Academy Nashville, TN




Josh Martin



Martin Stars in Jets Preseason Win

Josh Martin '13 had a big night for the N.Y. Jets in the preseason opening win over Tennessee Saturday night. The Jets Wire fan website had this to say about it:


  • LB Josh Martin: Martin, a special teams star, had one heckuva night on defense. The linebacker recovered a fumble, picked up a sack and recorded four tackles and two total quarterback hits. Not bad for a guy that would love to see some defensive snaps.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Georgia Linebacker Commits



6-1 212 pound LB Devin Hart from McEachem HS in Powder Springs, Georgia has committed to Columbia.

Hart had offers from Penn, Cornell, Davidson, and Stetson.

He looks like a hard hitter.

According to my LionFeeders recruiting database, Hart will be the first McEachem grad to come to Columbia Football.

That brings our list on reported commits for 2018 to four, (with one or two more out there we haven't been able to publicly identify):


1) Devin Hart LB 6-1 212 lbs. McEachem HS Powder Springs, GA

2) Chris Park WR 5-11 175 lbs. Junipero Serra HS San Mateo, CA

3) Mitchell Sturgill DB 6-1, 185 lbs Bellevue HS Bellevue, WA

4) Watson Tansil LB 6-3, 215 lbs. Franklin Road Academy Nashville, TN


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Busy Days


John Lovett


It's been an eventful few days in Columbia and Ivy football news.

Let's list those big stories in order of importance:

1) Princeton's WR/RB/QB John Lovett, the best all-around player in the Ivies, is going to be out for a significant part of the season. He might be out for the entire season. That changes a lot of things for the league as a whole and especially for Columbia, who will almost certainly not have to face Lovett in week three of the season.


2) The preseason Ivy football media poll came out, with Princeton and Harvard tied for first, Penn just behind them, and Columbia picked seventh. The poll was taken before the news about Lovett became widely known, and thus it's probably more meaningless than it usually is.


3) Columbia has secured a fourth committed player for the 2018 freshman class, apparently a wide receiver from Florida. But we don't have confirmation on his name yet.

Lovett Leaves it Wide Open

The Lovett story is explosive when you consider just how incredible a weapon he is and the way he makes it impossible to beat the Tigers unless your defense plays its very highest level. He was the 2016 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year for a reason. He personally scored 21 TD's and threw for 10 more in his "slash" mode on offense. Without him, Princeton's offense is really just a bit above average in the league. The Tigers still have a great offensive line, very good RB, and a good full-time QB in Chad Kanoff. So again, that's still an above average crew.

But remember that the Princeton defense has to replace an incredible 10 starters now gone to graduation. That was already a tall order and now the team's chances of repeating as champions seems like more of a stretch.

Four months ago, it looked like we were heading into a season where the chasm between the top three teams, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton, and the rest of the league was the greatest in recent memory.

But now that we know of the loss of Penn's presumptive new QB and its best DB to transfers, Harvard's loss of its best O-lineman to an undisclosed reason, and Princeton's loss of the best player in the whole league to injury, the Ivy League football race looks like it may be the most wide open affair in many years. (Off hand, I'd say it's the most wide open since 2005).

Media Poll (1st place votes in parentheses)

1. Princeton (6) 120
1. Harvard (5) 120
3. Penn (5) 110
4. Yale 71
5. Dartmouth 60
6. Brown (1) 57
7. Columbia 38
8. Cornell 36

The media poll is usually pretty accurate when it comes to pegging the top teams, if not in exact order. But this year, even somewhat casual fans could make the easy choice of putting Penn, Princeton, and Harvard in the top three. If we knew for sure that Lovett was out for the entire season, I'd be comfortable putting Princeton at 4th or 5th, but it sounds like there's a good chance he'll play for some portion of the year. 

There's always one yahoo who gives Brown a first place vote in this poll. It does skew the whole voting process and also runs contrary to the kind of practice I employed, (at a steep personal cost), when I participated in the poll and refused to cast "homer" votes for Columbia or continue acting as a mindless homer when previous coaching regimes were causing serious harm to the program. 

That said, even with the added boost Brown got overall from that first place vote, the voters gave Dartmouth and Yale possibly the biggest votes of confidence by placing them above Brown, Columbia, and Cornell by somewhat significant amounts in total votes.  

I'll have my own Ivy predictions ready to go the week of August 21st, but those of you reading my team-by-team analyses of the league over the summer so far know that I'm not all that high on any team right now. Again, that's part of my assessment mentioned above about how this is shaping up to be a more wide open race this year than we've seen in a long time. 

I don't see why Yale especially is getting so much more love than anyone else. But getting bent out of shape by the poll is something too many of us do every year and it's a waste of time. 

Where do Columbia's chances fit into all of this? The Lions have significant questions like the rest of the league's teams, especially at the running back position and depth at the QB role. But they have a better offensive line than most of the league, a better receiving corps than most of the league, a better secondary than most of the league, and a QB who could also be better than most of the league if he plays like he did the last three weeks of the season. That's a bag of positives I don't think Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and Cornell can match. The big question is whether they will get the Lions a win against Penn, Princeton, or Harvard to properly announce their arrival as a contending team. 

But for now as we look at the schedule, I simply don't see any "impossible to win games" on the slate anymore. I had thought the road contest at Princeton was pretty close to unwinnable, but without Lovett the Tigers are beatable. I had thought that the Penn game at Homecoming would again be a stretch, (the Quakers have the best two-year track record in games against us since Al Bagnoli came to NYC), but it seems a little less so without that presumptive QB and their top veteran DB. 

Again, that's how it looks coming from a Lion lens. But every team in the league not named "Harvard, Penn, or Princeton" has to be more optimistic and excited than they were a week ago. And they should be. 






Friday, August 4, 2017

2017 Opponent Preview: Cornell


Dalton Banks


OVERVIEW

Cornell got out of the gate with a 3-0 start last year, capped off with a stunning 39-38 win over Colgate on the road. Then the bottom fell out with losses in six of their final seven games, the only win coming in a squeaker against Columbia.

But the Big Red season wasn’t as inconsistent as it may seem by just looking at wins and losses. Cornell was generally a good offensive team and that could continue this year thanks to some key returning players. The defense is another story.

Now in his fifth year as head coach, David Archer has some of his own recruited talent to work with in hopes of getting the program’s first winning season since 2005.

OFFENSE

Resist the urge to throw salt on Cornell QB Dalton Banks. He’s the real deal after having a break out sophomore year in 2016. He’s just a great passer and doesn’t rely on any one or two receivers to get his completions. He spread the ball around and doesn’t take too many sacks either.

Fellow junior RB Chris Walker is also very good, as he proved against Columbia last season. But I’m not convinced that he’s as potentially special  as Banks.

Most of Banks’ top receivers are gone to graduation, including standout TE Matt Sullivan. But again, Banks really spread his passes around last year leading me to believe he’ll simply find some good new targets this season.

Much more troubling is that four of Cornell’s starting five offensive linemen for 2016 have graduated. That includes their best OL, John Foster. And that’s a serious question mark that needs to be answered. I can’t think of any Ivy team or any other Columbia opponent with as much work to do on the O-line as the Big Red is facing.

DEFENSE

The Cornell defense has 1st Team All Ivy Safety Nick Gesualdi returning for his senior year.

And that’s about it.

Okay, it’s not that bad.

Junior LB Reis Seggebruch is back after totaling 74 tackles and two sacks last season. And fellow LB Kurt Frimel is back too after leading the team in tackles for a loss with six in 2016.

DB’s Justin Solomon and D.J. Woullard return after picking off three passes each in 2016. The problem is, even with Gesualdi, Solomon and Wollard, the Cornell pass defense was the worst in the Ivies. That was probably more a result of a meager pass rush that only netted 18 sacks all season, but the Big Red gave up an average of 272 yards passing per game and almost eight yards per pass.

This overall defensive unit needs to find some young talent to change the script this season or the likely feats of Banks and company on offense won’t amount to much.


SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior Placekicker Zach Mays should be back after missing most of last season to an injury. He’s a solid kicker on accuracy and distance and one of the best in the league if healthy. Nickolas Null was fine as his backup last year, but will probably sit if Mays is ready.

Perpetual top Ivy League Punter Chris Fraser has finally graduated, so the defense won’t be able to count on his help this year.

The Cornell returners did not make any noise last year.

The Big Red are a hard team to figure. They looked like world beaters early last season, but couldn’t keep it going. Now, they have a legit star at QB. But they also have to retool their offensive line almost from scratch. And the defense still needs a lot of work too.


But I do expect this team to be exciting, and that’s something the fans in Ithaca can count on. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

2017 Opponent Preview: Harvard


Is Tim Murphy losing his edge?

2016 was one of the worst years in recent Harvard history. Not only did they find themselves out of the championship circle for the first time since 2012, but they did the unthinkable by losing to Yale. And Yale wasn’t really even a very good team.

Those who watched the Crimson all season long know what the problem was on the field as Harvard’s defense basically played up to its usual strong levels but its offense uncharacteristically sputtered time and again. But after coming in third in 2016 and losing what some people consider to be the de facto annual Ivy championship game against Penn two years in a row, a number of fans are asking whether Harvard’s incredible 20-year run of dominance under Head Coach Tim Murphy is finally coming to an end.

Murphy is the longest active serving Ivy coach for the same team, (Columbia’s Al Bagnoli has 25 years in with Penn and CU), now entering his 24th year in Cambridge. Younger fans may not know that despite the Harvard mystique, the years before Murphy were hardly as successful for Crimson football as they have been since he arrived. But he’s had some health problems in the recent past and he’s starting to look more like a man preparing to take his final laps with the program.

That makes this season something like the sealed envelope containing the answer to the question of whether the Murphy era at Harvard is indeed in some kind of decline. Here’s what Murphy and co. will be working with in 2017:

OFFENSE

QB Joe Viviano is back for 2017 after a pretty good year in 2016. He completed more than 61% of his passes, threw for 15 TD’s vs. just eight INT’s, and ran for five more. But Viviano’s performance was far from what we’ve come to expect from Crimson QB’s in the Murphy era and his performance in the second half of the season was downright ineffective at times. In the crucial back-to-back losses to Penn and Yale, he threw three interceptions against the Quakers and only passed for 181 yards against what had been a porous Eli pass defense the rest of the season. Don’t be surprised if someone from that endless pipeline of Harvard recruiting talent pushes Viviano for the starting spot either in camp or during the season.

But perhaps Viviano’s not-so-stellar year was partly the offensive line’s fault. Sure, the Crimson had two 1st Team All Ivy Offensive Linemen in Larry Allen and Max Rich. But they were part of a unit that allowed 29 sacks, (six in the Penn game alone), and rushed for just under 150 yards per game. And with Rich graduated and Allen not returning to campus for this fall, the O-line is definitely a question mark for the Crimson.

Top 2016 running back Semar Smith is back for this fall as is promising junior Charlie Booker, who was more impressive than the rising senior Smith against Columbia last season.  It feels like it’s been awhile since Harvard has had a dominant back, but stay tuned to see if any of the four freshmen they're bringing step up in a big way.

The receiving corps is stellar with Justice Shelton-Mosley returning for his junior year and his up-and-coming fellow junior Adam Scott back too. Shelton-Mosley is a particularly amazing talent.

DEFENSE

Harvard’s defense was clearly the better of the two main units on the team last year. That defense did its best work in the Princeton game, when the Crimson held the Tigers’ high-powered offense to just 151 yards passing and no TD passes.

The best Crimson defender from 2016, DL James Duberg, is gone to graduation. But DE D.J. Bailey, LB Luke Hutton, CB Raishaun McGhee, and Safety Tanner Lee all return. 

Harvard may not be able to match the levels it reached on defense last year, but there’s a lot of room to fall before the Crimson D is in any trouble.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Rising sophomore Placekicker Jake McIntyre is back after a freshman season where he showed decent accuracy, but not much ability to hit FG’s of more than 35 yards. Senior punter Zach Schmid, brother of incoming Columbia freshman Punter Drew Schmid, is back after a solid 2016 campaign.

Shelton-Mosley is a demon as a punt returner, but Harvard does not have much of a threat in the kickoff return slot.


Again, Harvard right now is more a program that needs to answer questions about program leadership more than personnel. Harvard still has massive talent built on the value of its name. When the Harvard recruiters come into your living room, just about everything else stops. But if Murphy and his staff are slipping in their abilities to coach up the talent or put the best talent in all the right places, the Crimson will find itself out of the top spot in the league once again. The bet here is that rumors of Harvard’s demise are probably greatly exaggerated.