The preseason hype surrounding Penn football is unreal – 13 returning starters from a championship team will do that. I’m not guaranteeing a repeat title by any means, but it’s clear the enthusiasm around the program is beyond anything that's been seen in recent years.
Still, even if Penn repeats as league champs – even if Penn finishes 10-0 for the first time since 2003 – hell, even if Penn wins every game by 30+ points – its season will come to an end when the clock strikes zeroes at Cornell on November 19th.
And that’s ridiculous.
Football is the only one of the Ivy League’s 33 varsity sports to refrain from postseason play, and this system is dead wrong – it’s time to end the double standard and give Ivy football teams the choice to compete in the FCS playoffs like everybody else.
So why haven’t the Ivy League presidents pulled the trigger? Some might argue that the conference wouldn’t be competitive. But at the end of the 2015 season, the NCAA’s Simple Rating System had Dartmouth ranked 2nd in the FCS, Harvard at 4th, and Penn at 15th. Only one other conference in the nation (the MVC) had three schools in the top 15.
Prefer on-the-field evidence? How about Penn taking playoff team Fordham to the brink, falling 48-45 after roaring back from a 28-3 deficit – with arguably its most important player, first team all-Ivy quarterback Alek Torgersen, sidelined with a concussion.
And even if it was impossible for Ivy League schools to advance far – a questionable claim – why shouldn’t they get to try? No Ivy team has ever brought home the NCAA men’s basketball title, and none has made the Elite Eight since Penn back in 1979. So should the league stop sending its basketball champion to March Madness? Obviously not – take one look at Yale men’s basketball storming the court after upsetting Baylor this spring and try to argue that those kids should’ve been robbed of that joy.
Another justification for the lack of football postseason play is tradition. But what traditions exactly would be at risk by entering the FCS playoffs? Harvard and Yale would still go toe-to-toe in front of a sellout crowd every year in the last game of the regular season; Penn and Cornell’s annual tilt would still be for the Trustees’ Cup.
And don’t try to tell me that these games would be less meaningful because of the playoff. Harvard-Yale is the third-most played rivalry in college football history, known for tailgates, pranks and College GameDay appearances – an atmosphere unlike anything else in Ivy League sports. Now, imagine how much rowdier it would get if that game was also an opportunity for Harvard to clinch a playoff bid and for Yale to play spoiler to its biggest rival. Or even better, what if both teams were in contention for the league championship, and “The Game” was a “win or go home” showdown – kind of like that time the two schools played an instant classic basketball game in 2015 to determine who advanced to March Madness? These games would maintain the historical significance they’ve always had while adding the new prize of a possible playoff berth; it’d be absolute mayhem. The only “tradition” at risk is that of unjustifiably robbing student-athletes of their well-deserved opportunity to compete against the nation’s best, and it’s one that needs to stop.
The most prominent argument against the tournament is the fact that it overlaps with final exams – a sensible theory at first glance. But if we take a look at some other Ivy League sport calendars, we see that this claim is pure hypocrisy.
Every other Ancient Eight sport allows worthy teams into their sports’ versions of playoffs, and when juxtaposing this knowledge with the aforementioned argument, it’s pretty appalling how many of them saw final exams and playoffs overlap. In 2016 alone, all of these Ivy teams competed in postseason play at least into, if not all the way through, their final exam periods: Penn, Princeton and Harvard women’s lacrosse, Princeton and Yale baseball, Princeton and Harvard softball, Brown, Yale, Penn and Harvard men’s lacrosse, Harvard men’s and women’s golf, Columbia women’s tennis, a combined 21 rowing teams across the Ivy League, and every single Ivy track and field program.
And it’s not like these student-athletes are getting crushed academically. 22 members of Penn’s three rowing teams were Academic All-Americans in 2016, including Rhodes Scholar Jenna Hebert. Four Penn women's lacrosse players made the IWLCA Academic Honor Roll. Eleven track and field Quakers earned USTFCCCA All-Academic honors, including 2016 CoSIDA second-team Academic All-American Sam Mattis.
Additionally, it should actually be easier for football players to handle in-season exams based on scheduling; nearly every single game of the FCS bracket takes place on Saturday, when it’s highly unlikely for an exam to be scheduled. No other sport can make that claim. So if your primary argument against joining the playoff is the fact that the tournament interferes with final exams, then you literally cannot justify the Ancient Eight’s participation in postseason baseball, lacrosse, track and field and the other sports that directly contradict this philosophy.
What about the benefits to joining the tournament? The biggest one would simply be the opportunity to compete against the best. Winning championships is the ultimate goal for any athlete, and being the best out of 125 teams is a much more impressive claim than being the best out of eight. And coming up short of a national title doesn’t mean the ride can’t be memorable – try to tell Steve Donahue that Cornell’s 2010 Sweet 16 basketball run was meaningless.
But beyond the obvious excitement of the playoffs, the regular season would also change for the better. In 2015, fellow Ivy co-champions Harvard and Dartmouth won their non-conference games by a combined score of 242 to 34 – why schedule strong teams when your résumé doesn’t matter? Allow the Ivy League in the postseason, though, and you probably see more non-league games like Penn’s thriller against Fordham. Conference play easily would become more exciting too, considering the extra intensity of fighting for a playoff spot. The playoff would boost student interest – remember the vibe when Penn students piled into the Palestra to watch women’s basketball “Selection Monday” live on ESPN? Why not re-create that in the fall season when the opportunity is right in front of you? Recruitment would improve as well when adding the opportunity to compete for a national championship to the already existing perks to joining the Ivy League. The ticket sales and television money from playoff games would bring a huge financial surplus to any schools involved.
It’s clear that the Ivy League respects its customs, but there’s a line between respectfully paying homage to tradition and stubbornly refusing beneficial change, and the presidents are firmly on the wrong side of that line.
They know the euphoria that a successful football team can bring to a school. They saw Penn’s student section and football team dance together on the Franklin Field turf on that magical November afternoon when Penn clinched the league title last year.
Now let us dance on the big stage.
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