When I came into my freshman year in 2013, Penn football was supposed to coast to its fourth Ivy title in five years. I was inaugurated into Franklin Field with a win over Lafayette that made that dream seem like a possibility.
But a different reality took shape. Al Bagnoli’s squad dropped six of the next nine, ending the season on a four-game skid.
In Bagnoli’s final year, it got worse. A 2-8 campaign was highlighted only by wins over winless Columbia and a one-win Cornell team that hardly fostered optimism for Ray Priore’s first year at the helm in 2015.
As Priore took over after 27 years on the sidelines of Franklin Field, there was little reason to think things would change. How could a coach who had been there longer than anyone else bring to life a program that had begun to feel stale?
The Quakers were supposed to finish in the bottom half of the Ivy League for the first time in two decades — but they didn’t. For the first time since I set foot on campus, the Red and Blue were Ivy League champs.
“What happens over time is you remember how to win,” Priore said. “You go through season after season of success and you don’t do the little things that it takes.”
It turned out that Penn football didn’t need a new vision; it needed to remember why it had been the Ivy League’s dominant program for more than 20 years. And Priore was in a better position to do that than just about anyone else.
Now, here we are in 2016. It’s hard not to be overly optimistic. The Quakers return all of their offensive weapons and the majority of their defense. Even where they lost players, there isn’t a sense of unease over how the holes will be filled — both sides of the line bring back players with considerable game experience and the depth at linebacker seems just about limitless.
They have national player of the year candidates in Alek Torgersen and Justin Watson. They have a not-so-secret-anymore weapon in Ray Priore. Take a look through the rest of this supplement and you’ll see what the Red and Blue bring to the table.
Yet this year is immeasurably more important than 2015. Last year, expectations were minimal — there was little to prove beyond internal metrics. Things have changed. The Quakers have about even odds with Harvard to win the title. Penn’s stars are all known quantities. Now, people are watching.
Six times this season, Penn will play on national television. Three times, those will be Friday night games on NBC Sports. How Priore’s squad responds will do a lot to set the tone for the next several years — the Quakers will determine if they belong with the top echelon of the Ivy League again or not.
“You work a whole year for 10 games. We don’t go to the playoffs, so every game is like a playoff game,” Priore said. “So it only gets better when it’s on TV.”
It’s entirely different to play when you’re the under the radar, playing with nothing to lose — as the Quakers did in their mind-blowing win over Villanova last September — than the experience of being the team everyone is gunning for.
This fall, everyone will be watching. But Priore’s squad is ready for the challenge, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.
Nick Buchta is a College senior from Olmsted Falls, Ohio, and is senior sports editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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