Penn football primed for Ivy League title defense
Penn football coach Al Bagnoli would rather not have his team be the favorite to win the Ivy League this season. The 22-year veteran of the Franklin Field sidelines doesn't like the increased spotlight or expectations, and he has enough of both to deal with already.
But if a place atop the preseason poll comes with fifth-year senior starters at quarterback and running back, as well as a new generation of leaders on defense, he'll bear the burden.
"The defending champions are elected No. 1 until someone dethrones them, so I understand it." Bagnoli said during the program's media day at a sun-splashed Franklin Field.
Penn wasn't just voted atop the preseason poll because of last year's accomplishments. The Quakers bring back loads of experience at key positions, including three fifth-year seniors on offense: quarterbacks Billy Ragone and Ryan Becker and running back Brandon Colavita.
Ragone is atop the depth chart, and unlike with the Eagles there isn't much question about it. But he's still recovering from a gruesome ankle injury suffered in last year's game against Harvard.
Bagnoli's goal is to save Ragone's strength for the stretch run, as the program aims for an unprecedented fourth title in five years. That means Becker will get most of the snaps early on, especially with such a tough non-conference schedule.
For as much as Ragone wants to play, he's fine with easing himself back into top gear.
"It was tough being on the sidelines for all those offseason winter workouts and spring ball," Ragone said. "It was a long process, but we've worked hard to get to this point in the season and I'm ready to go.
On defense, a new generation of leaders is stepping up to replace departed linebacker Brandon Copeland. Now with the Baltimore Ravens, Copeland was as much a presence for his own team as opponents.
This year, defensive backs Dan Wilk and Sebastian Jaskowski will be part of a corps of players in the spotlight.
"Dan, Billy and other guys have stepped up and shown their confidence," Jaskowski said. "I think in big games they're going to come out and play."
One of those big games, of course, is the clash against Harvard on November 16 - the next-to-last Saturday of the season. Either the Quakers or Crimson have claimed at least a share of the conference title for the last six seasons, and 14 of the last 20.
But there are nine games to play before traveling to Boston for the program's only national TV game of the year. Three of those nine games are tough non-conference tests. After hosting Lafayette to start the season on September 21, Penn will play at Villanova on September 28 and at fellow CAA power William & Mary on October 12.
It will be a challenge for Bagnoli's team to get through those games at full health, much less with a winning record.
"If we can get out of that, we've played arguably the most athletic teams we've played all year," Bagnoli said. "It's a balancing act, and you just hold your breath because injuries are such an integral part of what your win-loss record will be."
Those games are really just appetizers, though. Since the Ivy League doesn't send its teams to the FCS playoffs, the only thing that matters is the conference title.