Saturday, August 19, 2006

2006 Ivy League Football Predictions

Predicted Final Standings

1. Brown 8-2 (6-1)
2T. Penn 7-3 (5-2)
2T. Harvard 7-3 (5-2)
4T. Cornell 6-4 (4-3)
4T. Yale 4-6 (4-3)
6. Princeton 4-6 (3-4)
7. Columbia 3-7 (1-6)
8. Dartmouth 2-8 (0-7)


This Ivy League football season has to be one of the hardest to predict in several years. The dominant teams of the past decade, namely Harvard and Penn, took a step back last season and found themselves out of the top spots for the first time since 2000. They both will contend again this season, and the odds seem to favor another 1-2 finish for the Crimson and the Quakers, but there are so many questions about both squads, it's anything but a sure thing.

And there are a lot of questions about the future of the league in general. Attendance continues to fall and interest seems to be flagging in other areas as well. A project to get all or most of the football games available live Online may help boost popularity, but it could also further erode attendance. Many hard-core Ivy football fans live in fear of some kind of further downgrade for the league, one that they also fear the not-so-atheletics-friendly school administrations may quietly cheer.

On the field, the biggest question other than who will win the title has to be: Where are all the quarterbacks? There is really no Ivy starting QB with "All-Ivy" written all over him this season, which could mean any number of things from a low-scoring type of year to the start of a great opportunity for the incoming freshmen and other underclassmen signal-callers. Someone will probably emerge from the shadows and rack up big stats, possibly from one of the five teams who will be forced to go with brand new starting quarterbacks this fall.

The other big mystery is whether Harvard's Bushnell Cup favorite Clifton Dawson will live up to the ridiculous expectations for his senior season. There's little doubt that Dawson will be a star again this year, but he's going to have to shoulder the biggest load of his career with a green QB for at least half the season in Cambridge.

But every team in the Ivies is facing tougher questions than usual. Defending champion Brown is no exception. The Bears are returning a lot of starters, but the most important starter, all-world running back Nick Hartigan is lost to graduation. Can Brown stay strong without him?

Last year's surprise team Princeton, which ended up tied for second, has also lost its entire offensive line and frequent hero Jay McCareins to graduation. Were last season's strong running stats and decent quarterbacking numbers simply due to the front five? And will the Tigers find someone who can single-handedly win games for them like McCareins did?

Rising power Cornell certainly has the enthusiasm and confidence to contend for the title as they did in 2005, but can they do it without stars like offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, (now an Oakland Raider), and the graduated QB Ryan Kuhn who ran for more than a thousand yards in 2005?

Yale brings back a talented offensive line and a great wide receiving corps, but star quarterback Jeff Mroz has graduated.

That brings us back to Harvard and Penn. The Crimson are the sportswriters' choice to win the league this year, but they will be without suspended now former team captain Matthew Thomas all season and the also suspended quarterback Liam O'Hagan for half the season. Can Harvard overcome their physical absence and the emotional letdown?

And while Penn returns tons of all-Ivy players from last season, the Quakers will have to start a new quarterback and they are coming off a rare losing season.

However, there is some clarity when we discuss who will occupy the cellar. There is really no chance either Columbia or Dartmouth will contend for the top spot this season. Dartmouth barely got one Ivy win last season, (it was at home versus Columbia, of course), and it too has lost its 2005 starting quarterback because of a suspension. Columbia is coming off what was, even for them, a disastrous season and is trying to rebuild yet again with new Coach Norries Wilson. The Big Green and the Lions will almost certainly finish 7th and 8th again this year. Columbia gets to host the game against Dartmouth this season, so that should give them a slight edge for the "coveted" 7th place spot.


Dartmouth looks like a last place team this year for a lot of reasons. The biggest one is the loss of would-be sophomore Josh Cohen for academic reasons. Cohen was just a freshman last season but he showed some flashes of brilliance and had a lot of upside potential. The running game is bleak. It does not seem possible that a team could average fewer running yards per game than Columbia did in 2005, but the Big Green did just that with just 40.0 yards per contest compared to the Lions' 46.4. The good news is their "top" rushers from last year are back in Jason Bash and Ikechi Ogbonna who both carried the ball fewer than 100 times in 2005. There is some hope that 2004 standout Chad Gaudet could return after missing the rest of last season after his first carry in 2005, but it's probably a bit of a long shot that he'll come back AND be very effective. Top receiver Ryan Fuselier is back, but his 9.8 yards per catch in 2005 are not scaring anyone. The offensive line gave up a whopping 54 sacks last year, 21 more than second-worst Columbia. The O-line starters are coming back this season and they should be better this year with experience, but this is still a massive weakness. The Big Green defense had its moments last year, looking surprisingly good in losses to Brown and Cornell but the loss of Anthony Gargiulo and Josh Dooley to graduation is going to hurt. Defensive back Steve Jensen's graduation will hurt both the secondary and the special teams as he handled most of the kick returns last year. The best case scenario for Dartmouth would be for someone to step up at QB in time for the Columbia game in week 6 and the defense to improve a bit over last season. But that's about as good as can be expected, and it's a stretch.

PREDICTION: 8TH (0-7 Ivy, 1-9 overall)

(Columbia is predicted to finish 7th; 1-6 in the Ivies and 3-7 overall. For a detailed preview of the Columbia season scroll down to the post from August 11th).

So that leaves the rest of the league, and there's a realistic chance any of the six remaining teams could win the crown.

But Princeton looks like the shakiest of the potential title contenders this year. The Tigers surprised a lot of people last year with a 7-3 record, highlighted by big wins on the road versus Harvard and Penn. But almost all of Princeton's greatest strengths of 2005 have been whittled away by graduation. McCareins single-handedly won two games for the Tigers last season, and the also-graduated Justin Stull and John Dekker headlined what turned out to be one of the best defensive units in the Ivies. But the biggest loss is the offensive line. All the starters on what was a sterling unit have graduated and it's really not clear if the solid years turned in by Princeton ball carriers Rob Toresco and Cleo Kirkland weren't mostly due to the excellent blocking and mismatches the Tigers enjoyed up front. Quarterback Jeff Terrell wasn't exactly a world-beater last season, and he benefited a lot from that now-departed O-line that gave up just 12 sacks in 2005. One of Princeton's best kickers ever, Derek Javarone, has also moved on. The good news is the Tigers have a wonderful schedule this season, with key games against Harvard, Brown and Penn at home. And Princeton is returning enough skill players on offense that will be dangerous if they can prove they're able to excel with the new offensive line. If the new O-line gels and someone in the Tiger secondary comes close to filling McCareins' shoes, this team could win it all. But that seems like a lot to ask, especially with head coach Roger Hughes, who still hasn't convinced his many critics that he's up to this job.

PREDICTION: 6TH (3-4 Ivy, 4-6 overall)

This could be Yale Coach Jack Siedlecki's last chance to save his job in New Haven where alumni anger seems to be boiling over after five straight losses to Harvard and no finishes higher than third since the Bulldogs won a shared title with Brown in 1999. Unfortunately for Siedlecki, Yale will have to play this season with a brand new QB. While lots of teams in the Ivies will have new signal-callers, Yale will miss its graduating quarterback the most. Jeff Mroz proved that patience was a virtue in 2005, as he waited for his turn to start a complete season and made the most of it. Mroz passed for 22 touchdowns and almost 2,500 yards on the year. The good news is the entire offensive line that gave up just 11 sacks last season is coming back and Yale truly has a strong corps of receivers including Ashley Wright, who led the league in receiving yards and TD's in 2005. Wright is also a talented punter, who stuck 11 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season. Chandler Henley, who was lost all last year to injury, will be back after putting up some big numbers in 2004. But without a seasoned QB, all this talent at WR and on the O-line could end up being something like having a good clean-up hitter on a baseball team but no one in front of him who gets on base. The running backs look solid with sophomore Mike McLoed looking to improve on a great first season where he rushed for 689 yards and six touchdowns. He'll have help from senior Jordan Spence . The defense is returning a strong-looking defensive line that has some good experience, but is coming off a season where it gave up more than 150-yards on the ground per game and recorded just 15 sacks. The secondary was totally decimated by graduation, with all four starters now gone. That's disturbing for a defensive squad that generated 16 interceptions last year. Yale does not have a very reliable placekicker. Another weakness is the fact that the Bulldogs face Harvard, Brown, and Cornell on the road. The Elis face an uphill battle this year unless the new QB is sharp and Mike McLoed approaches or surpasses a 1,000-yard season. The defense is going to have to defend the run better or it's going to be a long season in New Haven.

PREDICTION: Tied for 4TH (4-3 Ivy, 4-6 overall)

If teams could win the Ivy title on spirit and good coaching alone, Cornell would be an easy choice for the championship. In his first two seasons in Ithaca, Coach Jim Knowles has squeezed the most out of this team and instilled a "never say die" attitude. But Cornell is going to have to start a brand new quarterback this year and all they have on their roster are a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. The graduated QB Ryan Kuhn was not a great passer, but he was a punishing runner putting up 1,003 yards and 12 running TD's in his senior season. His replacement could end up replacing his arm, but not his legs. An even bigger loss to graduation is Kevin Boothe the all-Ivy offensive lineman who was drafted early by the Oakland Raiders. The good news is junior Luke Siwula is back and will look to add to his 1,086-yard season. But the big question is how much of Kuhn's and Siwula's numbers were due to Boothe? The rest of the starting O-line is coming back, and that's good news for a squad that paved the way for a whopping 248.6 yards per game on the ground last year and gave up just 17 sacks. The wide receiving corps is almost totally unknown and untested. The defense looks pretty strong as most of the defensive line returns and that's a unit that gave up just 883 yards rushing all of last season. The linebackers will be a mostly young and untested group, but the secondary looks good. A big problem for the Big Red is they have to face both Harvard and Brown on the road. It's possible the fired-up way Cornell plays its games will get them to the top of the heap, but with a new QB at the helm and a bunch of untested receivers, this is all probably too much to put on Siwula and the defense's shoulders. But another fourth place finish looks like it's in their reach.

PREDICTION Tied for 4TH (4-3 Ivy, 6-4 overall)

Harvard was the Ivy media's preseason pick to win the title. But that was BEFORE Coach Tim Murphy suspended starting QB Liam O'Hagan for the first half of the season. O'Hagan didn't get a huge amount of attention last season but he had a very strong season, completing 60% of his passes and averaging a solid 200 yards per game. O'Hagan would have come into 2006 as the best or second-best returning Ivy quarterback. That means junior Chris Pizzotti will take the signal-calling duties, and he's as untested as can be. An even bigger emotional loss for the Crimson is the loss of former captain Matt Thomas for the entire season, also due to suspension. Thomas was the team's leading tackler last year, and losing a team leader because of an arrest off-the-field is usually pretty devastating for a college team. A lot of the leadership responsibilities on the field will be on senior tailback Clifton Dawson's shoulders. Dawson had another fabulous year in 2005, and this year he should break Ed Marinaro's long-held record for career Ivy rushing yards, (of course, Marinaro accomplished his feat in just three seasons, while Dawson will have four). Dawson may be slowed somewhat by the loss of three starters from a Harvard offensive line that paved the way for 182 rushing yards per game. But the losses on the O-line will probably be a bigger distraction for the new QB than the seasoned Dawson. Another strength is senior WR Corey Mazza who missed most of last season due to injury, but figures to return to his 2004 all-Ivy form. Even without Thomas, the defense looks pretty good up front thanks to all-Ivy lineman Michael Berg and new captain Ryan Tully at linebacker. The secondary is not as strong, coming off a year where the unit gave up almost 220 yards passing per game. But this is not really a tremendous weakness, and another year of experience should make these players a bit better. There's no doubt Harvard still has the talent to win it all but the loss of Thomas and O'Hagan will hurt this team dearly, especially early in the season. And the big showdown with Brown in Providence is the second game of the season. The Crimson may not be 100% ready offensively by then, and a loss to the Bears could hold this team back. Look for this squad to start a bit slow, and then finish strong.

PREDICTION: Tied for 2ND, (5-2 Ivy, 7-3 overall)

Don't be fooled by Penn's losing season in the league last year and its 5-5 overall record. This was a team that looked as good as any squad in the Ivies until its offense gave out and the Quakers lost their last four games. This is still a team run by the best coach in the Ivies in Al Bagnoli, and now he has a bad season to motivate him to do even better in 2006. Much was made of the effect back-up senior Kyle Ambrogi's suicide had on the team last year but in fact, Penn's starting QB Pat McDermott was the biggest problem as he completed only 52% of his passes and had as many interceptions as he did TD passes, (12). McDermott is gone to graduation, and that means the Quakers will at least get a chance at a fresh start behind center with Bryan Walker, who got into a decent amount of games as a backup. Running back Joe Sandberg, who is a good all-around scoring weapon, will anchor the offense this season along with an experienced if unspectacular group of wide receivers. The offensive line is solid, returning a couple of all-Ivy starters on a unit that produced 125 rushing yards per game and only gave up 10 sacks. All of that should help Walker grow into the starting job. The defensive front looks strong, after giving up just 2.8 yards per carry in 2005. But the secondary is a little inexperienced and last season's more seasoned starters gave up almost 200 yards a game and grabbed just eight interceptions. Penn is picking a good year to have a weakness against the pass, as so many Ivy schools have new quarterbacks this season. Penn's kicker Derek Zoch is pretty reliable from 39 yards out and closer, but he's not a long-range game winner. Penn has a few too many holes to cruise to the top as it has in past years. But with coach Bagnoli, you can never count out Pennsylvania.

PREDICTION: Tied for 2ND (5-2 Ivy, 7-3 overall)

So that leaves defending champ Brown. Usually, the loss of an All-World back like Nick Hartigan would count a team out for at least a year. But Bears Coach Phil Estes has a long history of using the pass well, and Brown still managed to flash some passing brilliance despite Hartigan's rushing dominance in recent years and the running talent of Michael Malan in the years before that, (has everyone forgotten Sean Morey?). Returning QB Joe DiGiacomo is not a world-beater, but he stands as the default best returning quarterback in the league because of Liam O'Hagan's suspension. Some of DiGiacomo's stats from last year are very impressive, especially his 16 TD passes and just eight interceptions. More troubling was his low 52.4% completion percentage and mere 180 yards passing per game average. But Brown just didn't need to pass too much last year and one could argue that DiGiacomo got about as much out of the air as the Bears could ask for. The really good news is most of the offensive line that gave up just FIVE sacks all season is back . Star wide receiver Lonnie Hill will also return, and look for him to try to make up for some lost opportunities he suffered during Hartigan's dominance. Defensively, Brown will look to build around senior all-Ivy linebacker Zak DeOssie. There are a decent number of returning players on the rest of the defense, but the Bears gave up a lot of points last year for a league champion and the 169 rushing yards given up per game was troubling. If Brown really is going to use the pass more, the defense will have to do a better job of holding opposing teams during longer stretches of time. Some of this defensive unit looks up to that challenge, but other parts of it don't. A key factor pushing the Bears over the top this season could be the strong special teams. Steve Morgan was the best plackicker in the Ivies last year and he's back. All the Brown kick-returners are dangerous. A big challenge for Brown this year will be staying hungry enough to repeat and the early tilt against Harvard, the only team to beat the Bears last year and in overtime no less, should serve as a good enough motivator.

PREDICTION: 1ST (6-1 Ivy, 8-2 overall)


Post a Comment

<< Home