Raising the Bar
Lion Players Celebrate the Win over Fordham, 2006 (CREDIT: Columbia Athletic Dept.)
How tough will it be for the Columbia Lions to repeat their success of 2006 and even improve upon it? Pretty damn hard, thanks to a much tougher schedule.
Columbia played six home games last year; in 2007 they'll go back to the normal slate of five games at Wien Stadium. But home may not feel so much like home when perennial Ivy powerhouses Penn, Yale, and Harvard come calling. The other two home games are against the very beatable Marist and the erratic Brown Bears, who could be resurgent next season.
The road schedule is rough too. The season opener at Fordham is certainly winnable, but the next two road games at Princeton and a nighttime affair at Lafayette will be a challenge. Dartmouth and Cornell round out the road schedule. Columbia has played pretty well at Dartmouth since 1998, but they still don't have a win at Memorial Field since 2001. Cornell was twice the team at home than they were on the road last season, which doesn't bode well.
Familiarity Breeds Comfort
They way Columbia's 3-5-3 defense confused opponents last season was a beautiful thing to behold. But some of that confusion is bound to be gone in 2007 as the other coaches and players get more used to it. And don't be surprised if some other Ivy schools start to experiment with the 3-5-3 themselves this season. I know the formation would make a lot of sense for at least half the league right now.
Nothing Motivates Like Fear
Don't listen to the bravado from the loud-mouthed supporters of Penn, etc. The fact is, the way Columbia played against most of the Ivy teams last season put the fear of God into a lot of opposing coaching staffs. For the Lions to recover from a 2005 season when they were destroyed by every Ivy club, (except Dartmouth), to playing competitively into the 4th quarter against every team was more than impressive... it was scary. You can bet the other Ivy schools will be working extra hard to prepare for Columbia this season.
Can We Replace Our Losses?
The young Lion underclassmen were all over the field last season, but don't forget most of the most solid play on defense came seniors Adam Brekke, Darren Schmidt, and Tad Crawford. They're gone now, and replacing them and their fellow seniors, Todd Abrams and Justin Nunez won't be easy. The big concern is up the middle, where Abrams at NT, Brekke at MLB, and Crawford at FS are all departing.
What it All Means
To post another 5-5 record in 2007, the Lions will have to be a better team than the squad that went .500 last season. There's little doubt of that. And to go 6-4 or better, the team will have to get much better, faster, and stronger. Saturday's spring game will give us some idea of how much they've accomplished so far and how much more work they all have to do over the summer.
The Good News is...
You didn't think I was going to let this be a downer post did you?
Columbia still has a lot going for it in 2007 and beyond. Here are some of the main highlights:
1) Coaching staff
New coaching staffs have invigorated Columbia in the past, but this group stands apart. The Lions last four non-losing seasons, (1996, 1994, 1971, and 1962), were all helmed by coaching staffs who had been around for several seasons before reaching that plateau. Norries Wilson and defensive coordinator Lou Ferrari were just too good on and off the field last season to be a flash in the pan. I also put a lot of stock in the fact that players like Bayo Aregbe, who left the team after the 2005, was so encouraged by Wilson and his staff that he's rejoining the squad this season.
The jury is still out on some of the supporting cast, like offensive coordinator Vinny Marino and some of the newcomers replacing the three assistants who moved on, (and up), to other jobs this offseason. But Columbia would have to completely implode in 2007 for these guys to lose their winners' glow. (Of course, that's exactly what happened to Bob Shoop and his staff in 2004 after the encouraging 2003 season. But could bad lightning strike twice?)
2) Young Lions be Free Tonight
Columbia had no less than six freshmen who were impact players in 2006. Wide receiver and Ivy Rookie of the Year Austin Knowlin got most of the attention, but I thought spur linebacker Andy Shalbrack could have easily won that award too if defensive players ever got an equal shot at postseason awards. Hot on Knowlin's and Shalbrack's heels was linebacker Justin Masorti, the man I think has the best shot at replacing Brekke when it comes to plugging up the middle of the Lion D. Knowlin, Shalbrack and Masorti are all potential All-Ivy players, while frosh like LB Lou Miller, DT Matt Bashaw, and WR Taylor Joseph rounded out the super class of 2010.
The super sophs were defensive lineman Phillip Mitchell, linebacker Drew Quinn, and kicker/punter Jon Rocholl. But I was also impressed by the yeoman work done by Jordan Davis at tailback and Mike Brune and Ralph DeBenardo on the offensive line.
These are a lot of underclass boldface names for any team at any level. If half of them raise their games in 2007, Columbia will probably get better enough to go 6-4.
John Witkowski, 1982 (CREDIT: IvyLeagueSports.com)
Call for Memories
Columbia's strong defense in 2006, coupled with a mostly challenged offense reminded me of the days when it was just the opposite. John Witkowski's Columbia teams of 1982 and 1983 had more offensive firepower than any CU team before, but the defense usually couldn't hold opponents very much at all.
How unbalanced were those teams? Well, check out the Columbia Athletic Department's
description of Witkowski's two greatest games in a Lion uniform and get an idea.
But if there are any players or fans from that era who remember these games or any others, I'd love to hear your comments below.