There's a saying in the Ivy League: "Who's the next man up?"
That explains how Harvard is the favorite to win or share its fourth consecutive Ancient Eight championship despite losing 15 starters from last year's 9-1 team. The Crimson shared the championship with Penn and Dartmouth at 6-1 in the conference. (You can see both Harvard and Penn on ASN this fall.)
“Every year you graduate kids," Penn head coach Ray Priore, the Ivy League's Preseason Coach of the Year, said during Tuesday's Ivy League media day conference call. "It starts with building a foundation."
But Penn might have the best foundation in the Ivy League this year.
The Quakers return 13 starters, including two of the best players in FCS — quarterback Alek Torgerson and wide receiver Justin Watson.
They also finished last season with a six-game winning streak, including a 35-25 victory against Harvard that ended the third-longest winning streak in FCS history at 22 games. In that game, Watson totaled 249 yards and two touchdowns and the Quakers shut out the Crimson (9-1, 6-1) in the second half to end Harvard’s 11-game home and 16-game Ivy League winning streaks.
Harvard had last lost on Oct. 26, 2013 — 51-48 in triple overtime to Princeton.
The key, Priore said, was the team's attention to detail and resilience.
"How gritty our team was, how we reacted to adversity and staying healthy," he added. "That's most important. Can you get your guys from the starting line to the finish line?"
Penn averaged 36.5 points in its last six games while the defense, which allowed 41 points or more in three of its first four games, gave up an average of 20.7 down the stretch. That's the most encouraging sign for a defense that played five freshmen last year.
Penn's real firepower is on offense. While Harvard lost its starting quarterback, running back and receiver, the Quakers return the Ivy League's leading passer and receiver.
Torgersen, the Ivy League's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, completed 69.1% of his passes for 1,996 yards, 19 touchdowns and a league-leading 164.1 efficiency rating.
“We’re blessed to have Alek back this year,” Priore said.
Watson made the STATS Offensive Player of the Year watch list and three preseason All-American teams after leading the league last season as a sophomore with 74 catches for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns.
Priore expects Watson to be even better this season.
"The amazing thing, he didn’t take one snap in spring practice in 2015," Priore said. "This is his first full year to train."
At Harvard, it will be the first year as starting quarterback for either senior Joe Viviano or sophomore Tommy Stewart.
They are competing to replace All-Ivy quarterback Scott Hosch, and head coach Tim Murphy said both are strong dual-threat players. Both have seen action, but Murphy added that neither has taken a meaningful snap in a college football game.
"It’s a little bit different," Murphy said. "Losing arguably the most successful senior class in Harvard history — 15 starters, nine first-team all-leaguers, four NFL players. We’re used to setting the bar high."
The Crimson are also used to reloading, having finished first or second in the league for eight consecutive seasons. It also explains why Harvard is 19th in the FCS Preseason Top 25 Coaches Poll.
They return five starters on offense and four on defense, including defensive end Scott Evans and receiver/return Justice Shelton-Mosley.
Shelton-Mosley was the Ivy League's Rookie of the Year after making 40 catches for 589 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also averaged 19 yards on punt returns, the highest single-season average in school history.
He and tight end Anthony Firkser will be keys on an offense that needs to replace three All-Ivy linemen.
Murphy said offensive line is the priority because of another saying in the Ivy League: "It’s what up front that counts."
Emphasis on player safety
Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris said the league will continue its emphasis on player safety.
Coaches agreed to limit live tackling in practices after league data showed 58% of concussions during practices were caused by helmet-to-helmet hits.
Teams also will kick off from the 40-yard line during league games in hopes of reducing the risk of concussions. Harris said the NCAA agreed to the experiment because league data showed 23% of concussions occur during kickoff returns.
More touchbacks are expected with kickoffs from the 40 instead of the 35, and Harris said the league will report its finding to the NCAA.
The league is also bolstering its rules against targeting. Ballcarriers who slide feet first to avoid a tackle will be considered defenseless players. Also, tripping ballcarriers will be illegal.
“We're very proud of our coaches for moving in this direction for student safety,” Harris said.
Ivies in the NFL
Harris noted that there are 24 Ivy League players on NFL rosters heading into training camp, which is believed to be league record.
There were 20 Ivies on NFL rosters entering training camps prior to the 2009-10 and 2014-15 seasons.
This year's lineup includes eight members of the 2015 All-Ivy teams, including six who were named to the first team — Dartmouth's Jacob Flores (OL) and Vernon Harris (CB), and Harvard's Ben Braunecker (TE), Anthony Fabiano (OL), Adam Redmond (OL) and Cole Toner(OL).
Preseason players to watch
In addition to Penn's trio of Priore, Torgersen and Watson and Harvard's Shelton-Mosley, other Ivy League players earned preseason recognition:
- Victor Egu: Yale's linebacker made Football Gameplan's Preseason All-American third team.
- Chris Fraser: Cornell's punter made the STATS FCS, Football Gameplan and College Sports Madness Preseason All-American teams.
- Folarin Orimolade: Dartmouth's linebacker was named the Ivy League's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. He also made the STATS Defensive Player of the Year watch list and STATS Preseason All-American second team.
- Brendan Pyne: Brown's linebacker was named the Ivy League's Preseason Freshman of the Year.
MORE IVY LEAGUE COVERAGE
• VOTE: Who's your choice to win the Ivy League?
• On the field and off, Columbia football wants to be stronger than ever
• Tackling dummies? That's Dartmouth using its head
Above: Penn’s Alek Torgersen was the Ivy League's second-leading passer last season with 2,689 yards. (University of Pennsylvania Athletics)