Ivy League Football Predictions
Nathan Ford and the Big Red face a brutal schedule in 2008
Once again, before I do these team analyses, please look again at the disclaimer above AND remember that anyone who feels 'disssed, slammed, hurt, or generally in a state of ennui about what I write here should take it out on me and me alone.
Also, remember that we are talking about real sports here, and not pre-nursery t-ball where everyone has to be declared "winners." I believe in the spirit of competition and you should too.
That said, does this mean I'm 100% certain of these predictions? The truth is, (and I'm not just saying this to sugarcoat matters), is that every team other than Harvard is kind of a crapshoot this season. Columbia could finish as high as second and it wouldn't shock me. Yale could collapse, (especially if Mike McLeod stumbles or gets injured). Penn could fall apart too or turnaround big-time.
But Harvard is a very, very deep team with strenghts on both lines that just about no one else in the league can match. Of course, the Crimson have never repeated as champs under Coach Tim Murphy, so they have some history to overcome at least.
Obviously, I will do a more in-depth look at Columbia in the coming days. But I do think 2008 will be a lot better than 2007 was as this team matures. I also think 1-2 things falling into place could make the Lions contenders.
Let's start my more detailed breakdown of each team with Cornell:
The buzz around the Big Red is the return of 2005's 1,000-yard rusher Luke Siwula who was injured most of last year. The hope in Ithaca is that a healthy 5th year Siwula will combine with junior Randy Barbour to make for a potent running attack.
Veterans abound at the other skill positions as well. QB Nathan Ford is heading into his third season as a starter and Head Coach Jim Knowles is looking for a breakout final year from him. Zac Canty, Jesse Baker, and Bryan Walters make for a very good wide receiving corps. Junior Stephen Liuzza is on-again, off-again as either a wide receiver or a QB, but Knowles hasn't been able to figure out how best to utilize his speed and other talents.
On the offensive line there is trouble. Three starters have graduated, including an All-Ivy center. Coach Knowles seemed to be a bit concerned about the line in his preseason interviews.
Overall, the offense SEEMS impressive as it scored more than 27 points per game last season and returns more than a large chunk of its starters. But looks can be deceiving in this area... stay tuned for why.
The Big Red defensive line has some veteran experience, but there are still a lot of holes to fill. Frank Kunis is the leader, but not a game-breaker. He will need some help to improve on Cornell's 160+ yards rushing allowed per game, (5th in the league), and just 18 sacks made, (tied for fourth in the Ivies), in 2007.
The Big Red are also trying to fill some big holes at linebacker where All-Ivy Ryan Blessing and Doug Lempa have graduated. Graham Lihn will move over from the D-line to help out here and he should have an impact.
The defensive backfield is led by Tim Bax, who some consider to be the best corner in the Ivies. But he is also a little lonely due to graduation. Bax and the key returnees can boast that Cornell gave up just 203 yards per game passing last season, only Harvard, Yale and Columbia gave up fewer yards in the air and the Lions did that mostly because people were too busy running against us to throw. So Cornell was essentially the third-best pass defense in the league in 2007.
Any discussion about the Big Red and special teams begins and ends with the return game. This is absolutely the best return team in the Ivies, and Columbia got a double dose of that last season with a kickoff return and a punt return for touchdowns that basically made the difference in the game. Bryan Walters proved his 2006 freshman season was no fluke with lots of huge returns, especially on punts. Shane Kilcoyne burned lots of teams on kickoff returns. The return game is easily the most exciting part of this team two-years running.
Nick Maxwell is a solid punter and he is back, but veteran placekicker Peter Zell is gone to graduation. It looks like the Big Red will split the field goal and kickoff duties between two kickers this season. But this is a shaky slot right now.
Cornell's great strength over the last few seasons has been home field advantage. But that may fade this season because they've finally replaced that brutal old school Astroturf with FieldTurf... and it was that horrible turf that I think helped the Big Red win and rack up a few more return yards especially.
Jake's Overall Take
Last season the window closed on Cornell's chances to surprise and break into the top three. This year, the Big Red will see the bottom fall out. A tough schedule and deep losses to graduation are big reasons why.
The Big Red should be happy with 33 seniors returning, an unusually high number, but not enough of them are impact players. The names of the returning seniors are not as impressive as the ones who are now gone to graduation like Lempa and Blessing.
Nathan Ford is one of those returning seniors, and he is just not an effective QB. Cornell's seemingly impressive offensive numbers are more about their return game and general special teams than strong leadership and skill at QB. I would be surprised if Ford is still starting in week 9 or 10.
The weak defensive line is a major problem, even though this is a league where weaker D-Lines abound. Some of that upfront weakness was helped by the outstanding linebackers last season, but those linebackers are mostly gone now.
The best thing Cornell has going are the numerous talented running backs and wide receivers on the roster. The only trouble is that the offensive line is inexperienced and the QB is not an ace. That's a bad combination.
Also, Siwula is not the game-breaker many who cover this league seem to think he is. He ran for 1,000 yards in 2005 behind a superb line that included a future-NFLer. I don't expect him to gain more than 800 yards this season.
Not to beat a dead horse here, but I also don't think having two top runners equals the sum of its parts. Columbia learned this the hard way in 2004 when the Lions had Ayo Oluwole and Rashad Biggers healthy and ready in the backfield at the same time. The result was both runners failed to get a good consistent thing going.
When you talk wins and losses there are also some big questions. Cornell won two Ivy games last season, and they were both at home against Brown and Columbia. I think there is a very good chance they will lose to both of those teams on the road this time around. At home, the Big Red will have to face a tough Yale team that is good enough to wipe out any remaining home field advantange in Ithaca. If things go really well for Cornell, they could challenge Dartmouth and Princeton at Schoelkopf, but I'm not betting on that right now.