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Search For Three-Peat: Harvard Named Ivy League Favorite at Media Day

Pictured: Two-time All-American James Williams celebrates a Cheng Ho touchdown last season.
Courtesy: Dave Silverman
  

PRINCETON, N.J. - Looking to win its third-straight Ivy League championship in 2009, Harvard was voted as the league favorite in the 2009 Ivy League preseason media poll, released Tuesday as part of the league's annual football media day.

Harvard received 10 of the 17 first place votes and finished with 129 points. Penn received four first place votes and 117 points while Brown received three first place votes and 106 overall.

Both Brown and Penn visit Harvard Stadium this season; Brown on Sept. 25 in a 7 p.m. home opener for the Crimson and Penn on Nov. 14 in the final home game for the Crimson.

"The bottom line is, regardless of where we are in the poll, we have high expectations and set the bar very high," said Crimson football coach Tim Murphy, who begins his 16th year on the Harvard sideline. "Having said that, all Ivy teams have outstanding coaches and quality personnel. A season often comes down to one or two plays that can make or break it."

This marks the third time in the last four years that Harvard has been tabbed the league favorite at media day. The Ancient Eight has not seen a "three-peat" as league champion since Dartmouth accomplished the feat from 1990-92, winning the title outright in 1991 and sharing it the other two seasons.  

Harvard's own Media Day will take place Saturday, Aug. 29 in Harvard Stadium with all players and coaches available for interviews.

Penn will be relying on its defense headlined by senior defensive Chris Wynn, named to the preseason watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, to lead Al Bagnoli's squad to its first Ivy title since 2003. Brown should be in contention this season with a potent offense led by their prolific receiving tandem of senior wideouts Buddy Farnham and Bobby Sewall.

Now entering its 136th season of football, Harvard looks to put an exclamation point on a decade that has seen the Crimson dominate. Under the tutelage of Tim Murphy, the Thomas Stephenson Head Coach for Harvard Football, the Crimson has posted a national-best 69-20 record with two perfect seasons and four Ivy League championships including two straight and three in the last five years.

A year ago, Harvard maintained its own record-setting pace for supremacy within the Ancient Eight. Harvard (9-1, 6-1 Ivy) became just the eighth team in history of the Ivy League to come back from a loss in its league opener to win the championship. The championship marks Harvard's second consecutive Ancient Eight Championship and its first title repeat since 1982-83. The Crimson has now won three league titles in the past five seasons and four in the last eight seasons. Harvard finished the season ranked 14th in the Football Championship Subdivision Coaches Poll.

With the top three teams separating from the pack, the middle of the preseason poll saw Yale (82 points) picked fourth, Princeton (67) picked fifth and Cornell and Columbia tied for sixth with 44 points. Dartmouth rounded out the field in eighth with 23 points.

Earlier in the summer, Harvard was ranked 23rd nationally in the 2009 Phil Steele's Football Preview Magazine.

A total of nine Harvard players were named preseason All-Ivy League by Phil Steele while four players have garnered preseason All-America honors by various publications. Sophomore cornerback Matthew Hanson, senior offensive lineman James Williams, senior cornerback Derrick Barker and senior wide receiver Matt Luft have all been named as some of the nation's top players at their positions.

Coming off its second consecutive championship, Harvard returns 15 starters with eight on the offensive side, five on defense and both of its special teams' specialists.

Answering questions about breaking in a new quarterback after unprecedented success under center over the past decade, Murphy pointed to returning upperclassmen Collier Winters and Matt Simpson as the top candidates.

"(Collier) Winters and (Matt) Simpson can both play but they have to go out and prove it," said Murphy. "Let's face it, they have big shoes to fill as our previous two quarterbacks are in the NFL right now. What helps both guys out is that we have a solid offensive line returning led by All-American James Williams and All-Ivy League center in (Alex) Spisak as well as an Ivy-caliber player in (Brent) Osborne."

A defense that has been ranked near the top of Division I in each of the past five seasons was no different in 2008 as Harvard ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 11th nationally in scoring defense. In all, Harvard finished the season ranked among the nation's leaders in six different statistical categories including turnover margin (10), total defense (17), passing efficiency (17) and passing offense (18).

Responding to question about his team's depth in the defensive backfield, Murphy was quick to offer praise to a number of important letterwinners.

"Our secondary should be very solid, led by two returning safeties Collin Zych and Ryan Barnes. Collin, we think, is one of our top football players if not in the league. We also have two solid corners in Derrick Barker and Matthew Hanson. As the league rookie of the year, we thought (Hanson) was a good athlete and think he will be an outstanding player this season."

Despite the overwhelming success, the Crimson will be looking to fill several key positions with the loss of an unprecedented 12 All-Ivy League performers (six on each side of the ball) to graduation - a number that includes two All-Americans and four All-New England honorees. All told, Harvard returns 28 Major H award recipients with 13 on each side of the ball and two special teamers but 26 letterwinners left to graduation.

Responding to questions about the Crimson's depth at running back, Murphy responded that, "We haven't talked much about the position but we have a junior and a senior who have both been very productive and are both All-Ivy players. Gino (Gordon) is one of those kids who can do it all - he is very physical in the open field with great instincts/ Cheng (Ho) has done a great job for us for years and brings tremendous intensity and energy to our team."

Since 2000, Harvard has posted the second-highest winning percentage (.775) in the Football Championship Subdivision and seventh highest in all of Division I. Over the past five seasons, Harvard is 41-9. Harvard is 36-6 at Harvard Stadium dating back to 2001 while winning 16 of its last 17 games there.

The Crimson has registered at least seven wins in each of the last eight years, making Harvard the first team in the history of Ivy League football to post such a string of successful seasons. Two years ago, Harvard became the first Ivy team to post a string of seven such seasons together. The current stretch is the Crimson's best eight-year run since a 28-year streak of seven-plus win seasons came to an end in 1911. The program has won 64 games over the past eight seasons for the best stretch since a stretch from 1908-1915 when the program also won 64 games.

Looking back on its success, Harvard has reached double figures in points in 61 straight games and 98 of its last 99. The Crimson is 39-1 when leading at halftime since the 2003 season and 265-5-1 all-time when scoring 30 or more points. Harvard is 32-10 in its last 42 road games since the start of the 2000 season. The Crimson is 24-7 in Ivy League road games during that span.

2009 Ivy League Football Preseason Media Poll
1. Harvard (10) 129
2. Penn (4) 117
3. Brown (3) 106
4. Yale 82
5. Princeton 67
6. Columbia 44
    Cornell 44
8. Dartmouth 23

Media Day Notes
Tuesday's media day was held via conference call for the first time ... First-year Executive Director of the Ivy League Robin Harris made opening greetings ... The day began with the Ivy League's director of officiating, Jim Maconaghy, who outlined the rules changes for college football in 2009 ... The most significant rules change came in regards to "targeting" penalties to protect players who cannot defend themselves such as wide receivers jumping for a pass. In addition to a 15-yard penalty, flagrant hits will "likely" be accompanied by a game misconduct ... Facemask fouls will now include the pulling of chinstraps ... Rugby-style kickers (punters) are not entitled to protection rules upon leaving the tackle box, similar to previous rules for quarterbacks.