football

All teams in the Ivy League — including Penn football — are currently barred from the FCS postseason playoffs. The conference's policy needs to change if it wants to generate excitement for football at Penn, Cole Jacobson writes.

Photo: Alex Fisher / The Daily Pennsylvanian

The preseason hype surrounding Penn football was unreal — 13 returning starters from a championship team will do that. I’m not guaranteeing a repeat title by any means, but considering last year’s success and this weekend’s domination at defending Ivy co-champion Dartmouth, the enthusiasm around the program is sky-high.

But even if Penn repeats as league champs — even if Penn finishes unbeaten in conference play for the first time since 2010 — hell, even if Penn wins every league game by double digits — its season will come to an end when the clock strikes zero at Cornell on Nov. 19.

And that’s ridiculous.

Football is the only one of the Ivy League’s 32 varsity sports to refrain from postseason play, and this 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 Missouri Valley Conference) had three schools in the top 15.

Prefer on-the-field evidence? How about Penn taking playoff team Fordham to the brink last year, falling 48-45 after roaring back from a 28-3 deficit with arguably its most important player, quarterback Alek Torgersen, sidelined with a concussion. A week prior, Penn was steamrolled by Dartmouth by 21 points. Dartmouth handily looked like the better of Penn’s two opponents, but of course, the Big Green never got the chance to prove it.

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-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?

Games like this 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 straight 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 postseason play overlap. 

In 2016 alone, all of these Ivy teams competed 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, while 11 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.

Yet another occasionally reoccurring argument against the postseason is that of player health – briefly, more games means more injury risk. But while conversations about the safety of the sport of football are generally justified, consider the Ivy League's innovation in working to make the game safe. 

This season, the league became the first in NCAA history to institute a ban on full tackling during regular season practices, it moved kickoffs up to the 40 yard line in conference play in order to increase touchbacks and subsequently reduce concussions, it is a part of the Ivy League-Big Ten Consortium looking into minimizing concussions and Penn itself has been a part of an ongoing Department of Defense study on the effects of concussions on athletes.

The Ivy League can't have it both ways. If the athletic directors believe they have taken steps to make the game safe for players, there is little reason to forsake an opportunity to promote that work on a national stage. 

And if a team did see itself as so banged up at the end of the regular season that it would be ill-advised to participate in the playoffs, it would reserve the right to withdraw from the bracket before it even starts. (Do I envision a group of Division I coaches and players willingly admitting that they wouldn't be competitive in a postseason game? No, but they ultimately deserve that right.)

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 Penn basketball coach Steve Donahue that his 2010 Sweet 16 run with Cornell was meaningless.

But beyond the obvious excitement of the playoffs, the regular season would also change for the better. In 2015, Harvard and Dartmouth won their non-conference games by a combined score of 242 to 34 — why schedule strong teams when your resume doesn’t matter? 

Allow the Ivy League in the postseason, though, and you probably see more non-league games like Penn’s 2015 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.

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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