BOSTON (AP) The Ivy League looks the same at the top this year, with defending champion Harvard favored to finish first again and familiar contenders like Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton expected to chase the Crimson to the title.
What could be more interesting is what’s going on at the bottom.
Columbia is hoping for a revival of the program that lost its last 21 games and hasn’t beaten a conference opponent since 2012. After luring former Penn coach Al Bagnoli out of retirement, the Lions were picked in the preseason media poll to finish seventh – the first time in three years they weren’t slotted last in the Ancient Eight.
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”I think it does change the dynamic in the league in a very good way,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. ”By Columbia hiring Al Bagnoli, they made a statement. They made a statement that football is important.”
Befitting its tendency to do things differently, the academically oriented Ivy League is the last Division I conference to get started. The eight teams all play nonconference openers Saturday, with Harvard going for its 15th consecutive victory when it plays Rhode Island (2-0).
Some things to look for in the Ivy League this year:
Columbia opens against Fordham (1-1) in the continuation of an annual subway series that the Lions haven’t won since 2009. Fordham has won the last two matchups by a combined total of 101-14.
But Bagnoli is hoping to turn things around in upper Manhattan. The 62-year-old former Quakers coach announced in the spring of 2014 that the next season would be his last. But his retirement lasted only a few months before he decided that administrative work wasn’t for him.
Bagnoli said he still catches himself referring to the wrong school when he is talking about his team.
”That Penn thing was ingrained for 23 years,” he said on the preseason media conference call. ”The question is: How quickly are we going to get it fixed? That’s the million-dollar question.”
CHANGES AT THE TOP
If Harvard is going to repeat, it’s going to have to do it differently from last year.
Scott Hosch takes over at quarterback for Conner Hempel, a three-year starter who earned three Ivy League championship rings. Defensive lineman Zack Hodges, one of the conference’s defensive players of the year, has also graduated.
”Zack Hodges isn’t walking through that door. Conner Hempel isn’t walking through that door. All those guys,” Murphy said. ”Every team in our league is going to be better than a year before – maybe other than Harvard.”
Harvard went 10-0 last year, and its 14-game win streak is second only to Ohio State in Division I. The Crimson have won the conference title four times in the past seven years and finished second three other times.
”We had a great year last year, but that’s ancient history,” said Murphy, who tells his team: ”If you think you’re entitled to it just because some of your teammates have won three of the last four Ivy League championships, you’re going to get hammered.”
AND LIONS STREAKING THE OTHER WAY
Columbia has had only three winning seasons in the past 43 years. But for now, it might be enough for the school just to win a game.
The Lions’ 21-game losing streak is not even halfway to the school-record 44-game skid the Lions slogged through from 1983-88. They have lost 15 in a row in the conference. Bagnoli never lost more than four games in a row at Penn.
”I have the utmost respect for Al, and I’m certain he’s going to do good work,” Brown coach Phil Estes said.
New Penn coach Ray Priore knew it would be difficult to take over for Bagnoli, who won nine Ivy titles in 23 seasons before retiring as the winningest coach in school history. His total of 112 Ivy League wins is the second-most in conference history.
And Priore knows how to put his own stamp on the program: Win.
Priore spent 29 years as an assistant on the Quakers sidelines.
”It’s easy being the co-pilot for so many years,” he said. ”But when you have the wheel in your hands, you have to make the right decisions.”