No, it’s not that the Crimson was projected to be so bad that any hope of success was an afterthought. Rather, the team plays in the Ivy League, the only football conference at the Division I level that opts out of advancing any of its teams to the postseason. For anyone unfamiliar with the yearly crowning of the Ancient Eight champion, the team with the best in-conference record automatically claims the glory. But actually not quite — if two teams (or three, or four…) conclude their seasons with identical records, there is no tiebreaker system and the teams simply share the designation of Ivy League champions.
Just last year, with just two games remaining for each squad, it was a very real possibility that seven(!) teams could have shared the title. Despite the entertainment value that would have come from such a quirky finish and the fact that Yale would not have been the outright champion, I imagine it would not have been satisfying to the average fan or to any team involved.
Now maybe I am overreacting by discussing an obscure possibility that didn’t end up coming to fruition anyway, or by discussing the postseason before September is even over, but plenty of times teams have tied for the top spot in the conference. I would venture to say that a tie at the top leaves both teams wanting more since it is not a clean, clear-cut result. The season consists of months on end of hard work in the weight room and on the practice fields, regimented eating and sleeping, and 10 games in which players put forth the entirety of their effort, not to mention having to keep up with schoolwork during that span. Tying for the title is still no doubt better than falling short, but there has to be some way to reward the best of the best in the Ivy League.
The conference’s reluctance to add its own playoff or to allow its teams to compete for an FCS championship seems to stem mostly from tradition. However, that tradition has not been part and parcel of the league for its entire existence. For instance, in 1920 Harvard traveled to Pasadena, Calif., to compete in the Rose Bowl (then known as the Tournament East-West Football Game). The trip was well-worth it for the Crimson, as it won by a score of 7-6 over Oregon. Yes, college football was a completely different landscape back then, but the competition level of Ancient Eight teams generally aligns very well with other FCS programs, and Ivy League playoff teams would not be fed to the wolves by having to compete against teams that are significantly more skilled.
Not only have Ivy League teams competed in bowl games before, but the league is also making a number of changes to slowly but surely modernize the product on its fields. Games are played on Friday nights under the lights and are broadcast on nationally-available networks like ESPN as well as popular local networks like NESN. Just this year, the league instituted a replay policy by which plays can be reviewed and calls can be overturned, bringing the conference up to speed with other top FCS leagues. Revolutionary player safety initiatives are being born within the league, such as Dartmouth’s use of tackling dummies in practices. The Ivy League does not have to cling to the past.
Seemingly something that would make it easier for football teams to advance to postseason contention is that other major sports in the conference already do. Two seasons ago, the Harvard men’s hockey team competed in the Frozen Four at the United Center in Chicago. The conference also recently instituted its own playoff to determine which of its basketball teams, on both the men’s and women’s sides, receive an automatic bid to March Madness.
Some of the apparent drawbacks to postseason football appear to be its conflict with players’ academic commitments near the end of the fall semester and the fact that it adds on additional weeks of playing, which could be construed as conflicting with the player safety angle mentioned above. As for both, there are really no obvious solutions that come to mind, so if the Ivy League were to ever consider entering the playoff realm, it would have to weigh the good with the bad. However, in an age of increasing visibility and talent level within the league, I believe it must consider breaking with tradition and taking the postseason plunge.