A year ago, after Penn football won a one-third share of the Ivy League title, I wrote in the columnist issue that Ancient Eight football championships should not be shared.
And this year, Penn football has forced me to put my money where my mouth is. Rolling to a 6-1 conference record and a second consecutive Ivy “title,” the Red and Blue certainly had an impressive 2016.
But it wasn’t a championship season. The Quakers lost – by a decisive 28-0 margin – to co-champion and fellow 6-1 conference finisher Princeton on Nov. 5. And as I wrote a year ago, that should give the Tigers the conference title. Outright.
That is not to disparage the 2016 Red and Blue squad. They were more than likely even better than the team of a year ago — senior quarterback Alek Torgersen and junior receiver Justin Watson produced encore performances that outgunned even their stellar 2015 campaigns. The graduation of linebacker Tyler Drake was assuaged by stellar secondary play — most notably in the form of up-and-coming sophomores Sam Philippi and Mason Williams. Williams led the conference with six interceptions while Philippi picked up 58 tackles on the year.
Watson, Philippi and Williams are part of a solid core of underclassmen that will return in 2017 and beyond – of the Quakers’ 14 All-Ivy selections, 11 will be back for more in the fall. With highly touted freshman quarterback Michael Collins (the all-time Connecticut high school leader in touchdown passes) expected to step into the starting role next season, the offense is poised to maintain the efficiency that generated the Ivy’s second-leading scoring attack.
So, to be sure, the 2016 Quakers were a good team; they finished tied for the best conference record. However, that tie can and should be broken — Princeton was the better squad this year, as was demonstrated on that early November afternoon. Tiger quarterback John Lovett accounted for two touchdowns on the day, part of the eye-popping 31 total TDs the junior registered on the season. Lovett deservedly beat out Watson for the Ivy League Player of the Year and is poised to defend the honor in a year’s time.
The Ivy League is already a small conference — a full league title is a one-in-eight proposition, not exactly the most challenging of odds. When one quarter (or three-eighths, as was the case last year) of its members can lay claim to the conference’s top spot, the allure of that distinction is diminished. When there is a clear 1a and 1b — as was the case in 2016 — it is only right that the better team have exclusive claim to the top spot.
As I said above, the Red and Blue will return an excellent team in 2017. That nucleus — Watson, Collins, Williams, Philippi et al — seem to be early favorites to take home the conference title. After coming in as the Ivy Offensive POY runner-up in both 2015 and 2016, Watson in particular seems poised to put the team on his shoulders.
And if the Quakers are lucky enough to pick up that Ancient Eight championship next November, I hope that, as a change, it will come without an asterisk.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.