Penn football faces its most daunting schedule in Al Bagnoli's tenure

Al Bagnoli is not especially pleased about the brutal schedule that his Penn football team faces this year. But he's going to have to deal with it in a few weeks, whether he likes it or not.

For just the second time in his 20-year tenure as the Quakers' head coach, Bagnoli has to send his non-scholarship program on to the field to play two scholarship programs in the same season: Villanova and William & Mary.

And these aren't just any two scholarship programs. Putting aside the rivalry aspect of the Villanova game, the Wildcats and Tribe both play in the CAA, which is perennially among the best FCS conferences.

I asked Bagnoli what that experience will be like during his Media Day press conference at Franklin Field on Monday. He laughed - seemingly out of resignation as much as anything.

"I'd rather not talk about how [the schedule] came to be - if I had my druthers, I would not want to be playing it," Bagnoli said. "It's going to be brutal for our kids."

I found it a bit odd that Bagnoli would claim he wasn't involved in the process of making the schedule. But I was told by a source with close knowledge of the scheduling process that this was indeed the case.

I haven't been able to find out exactly when the non-conference part of this year's schedule was set up. I do know that this year's Ivy League schedule was set up in 2006.

(That link also explains why Penn is playing at Dartmouth for the second year in a row, instead of hosting the game.)

The last time Penn played two scholarship teams in the same season was in 2005, when the Quakers hosted Duquesne and Villanova. But the Duquesne game wasn't the same kind of test - the Dukes finished that year ranked No. 205 out of 239 teams in the Sagarin Index, and the Northeast Conference in which they play was ranked No. 26 out of 27.

This year, along with the rivalry game against Wildcats, the Quakers will face a Tribe program that tied for first place in the CAA in 2010. Their senior class has compiled a 24-13 record in its three years in Williamsburg so far.

One of those wins was a 26-14 win over Virginia in Charlottesville. In conference play, they've been 15-9, with two straight 6-2 seasons before going 3-5 last year.

Penn starting quarterback Billy Ragone is looking forward to the challenge that playing William & Mary will present.

"If anything, it will help us," he said. "You always want to play the best teams you can possibly play." 

It would be tough enough for Penn to play Villanova and William & Mary in almost any year. This year, the Villanova game comes a week after a season-opening road game at Lafayette. The Quakers have a pretty good record against the Leopards historically, but with the Patriot League adding football scholarships next year it might not last long.

Penn also has the always-difficult road trip to Dartmouth sandwiched between the Villanova and William & Mary games.

(And I mean road trip in the literal sense. It's usually a bus ride, though in some years they fly up and back. Call it a hunch that this year will be one of those.)

Throw all of this together and you end up with a schedule that can legitimately be called the most difficult Bagnoli has ever faced. You probably have to go back to the last time Penn played Navy, in 1987, to find as big a challenge in the program's history. Ed Zubrow was the coach at that time.

Once the William & Mary game is done, it will be all Ivy League games for the rest of the season. Of course, the Harvard game will be a big deal, but this year Penn won't be able to take its foot off the gas in its season finale against Cornell.

The Big Red were picked to finish third in the Ancient Eight this year, and prolific quarterback Ryan Mathews can light up a scoreboard.

Bagnoli knows that full well, having watched Cornell drop 48 points on his team in a win at Franklin Field last year. Only once before in Bagnoli's tenure had his program lost at home to the Big Red.

"Cornell is going to be a thorn in everybody's side, because they have all those skill kids back on offense," Bagnoli said. "I think they're going to play with much more energy, I think they're going to play with much more confidence, and I think for the most part, they think they can contend."

That said, Bagnoli is not treating Cornell or Harvard differently from any of the other teams in the conference.

"We're always worried about everybody," he said. "I think the media looks at it much differently, but as coaches you're playing seven Ivy games, and they all count just as much as every other game counts."

It's not always fair to blame the media for things, but in this case, Bagnoli is right. The media does look at the Harvard game differently, and with good reason.

Either Penn or Harvard has earned at least a share of 20 of the last 30 Ivy league football championships, including 10 of the last 12. And in four of the 10 years when the Quakers or Crimson did not claim the title, one of the two teams finished within a game of the winner.

Cornell, meanwhile, hasn't won even a share of the title since 1990, and has never in its history won an outright championship.

In the end, the non-conference schedule isn't what really matters. Even bragging rights from the Penn-Villanova game pale in comparison to winning a conference title - and that's not just because the Quakers haven't beaten the Wildcats in over 100 years.

The dates to circle on your calendar are October 6 (Cornell at Harvard), November 10 (Harvard at Penn) and November 17 (Penn at Cornell). Each of the three teams in the title race gets one big home game and one big road game.

It's a safe bet that the team with the best record from three games will be the one hoisting one of the coolest trophies in college football when all is said and done.

There's more from Bagnoli in the video below. He talks about where last year went wrong, what lessons his team has learned for this year, and about Billy Ragone's importance to everything going right.

In addition, I'll have an exclusive interview with Bagnoli about some other topics up on the blog tomorrow.