Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Most Important Games Of 2011

Now that was a long off season, wasn’t it?

There’s no denying that football is in the air, and amidst the tide of predictions and previews for college teams nationwide, the schedules demand our attention. Unlike baseball, where the prevailing wisdom is that anyone can win coming out of spring training, a lot of teams come into the season opener knowing the die is cast.
Vanderbilt is not winning the ACC. Indiana is not taking orders for the Rose Bowl. No one is putting names like New Mexico and Duke together when reviewing BCS matchups.

But if some teams can’t reach the summit in one season, they can certainly try to reach for it, and such is the case with the 2011 Georgetown Hoyas. I live roughly 15 miles from the site of the I-AA national title game and the odds that Kevin Kelly is leading his team onto Pizza Hut Park in January is not worth spending too much time on. The 2011 Hoyas are still too young, a step slow on offense, lack a playmaker in the backfield, and have not yet shown the ability to make it to the fourth quarter in games and still compete within it. That’s certainly not to say it’s time to make plans for basketball season, only that the holes over the last five+ seasons don’t fill back by themselves.

And when people circle a proverbial calendar and say this is the most important game of the season, which is it for Georgetown?

Howard? Colgate? Fordham? Lehigh? In fact I’d say there are two, and they are the first two weeks of the season.

Why now? And why Davidson and Lafayette?

Thanks to a gauntlet of a schedule that takes the Hoyas on the road five straight weeks from Sep. 17 through Oct. 22, home games are absolutely essential for Georgetown to build some…no, make that ANY momentum. Kelly-coached teams are 4-24 on the road since 2006 (to be fair, not much better than a 5-21 at home), but three of those road wins came within the first two weeks of the season. Put another way, Georgetown has not shown any ability over the last five seasons picking up road wins after game films are broken down and teams are picking up the GU sets.

The last four games are troubling in a different way. For a number of years, Georgetown has fallen victim to a Patriot league scheduling measure which allows its preferred teams (I can almost hear Chris Rock saying  “Yeah! I said it!”) the ability to schedule three of more Ivy teams in the early season and backload its PL games, meaning that Georgetown would spend September in league play and be all but finished with league games when some were just getting started, with the Ivies already locked into their schedules. In each of the last two seasons, Georgetown has had just one PL game after Oct. 17.

This season changes that equation, although not necessarily to Georgetown’s immediate benefit. The Hoyas end the season with three PL teams and Fordham to run out the season, splitting two home (Colgate, Fordham) and two on the road (Holy Cross, Lehigh). Since 2001, Georgetown is a combined 0-18 against Colgate and Lehigh, 2-18 against HC and Fordham, and each of these teams enters late October and early November as significant favorites, home or away. That's not to say Georgetown can't win these games, but there's no track record of it, either.

So let’s return to Davidson and Lafayette. The Wildcats (3-8 in 2010) are a lot like Georgetown—they don’t recruit from depth, they struggle to maintain offensive intensity, and late season mistakes have begun to resemble a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Wildcats enter the 2011 season with a new offensive coordinator and a commitment to a pass-intensive game plan,emblematic of its days as a power in the Southern Conference (where the Wildcats even made the 1969 Tangerine Bowl). That promise makes it debut Saturday against Georgetown’s best secondary in a decade. If the veteran Hoyas can shut down the Davidson passing offense, the Wildcats are going to struggle. A lot.

So too, the Lafayette Leopards, who turned in a sub-par 2-9 season in 2010 but return depth and experience in the passing game for 2011. Senior QB Ryan O’Neil completed 20 straight passes against Georgetown en route to 343 yards last season, but four turnovers were Lafayette’s undoing in a 28-24 loss that still baffles the Easton faithful . Once again, the Hoyas and Leopards could come down to the Lafayette passing game and the Georgetown secondary. Were the Leopards looking past Georgetown that night, as most PL teams are altogether capable of doing? Perhaps. There’ll be no such looking ahead this time.

Lafayette’s opening schedule is as imbalanced as Georgetown’s, beginning at North Dakota State and three more on the road, with its first home game in October. Depending on the severity of play against ND State, the Leopards could arrive in Washington looking to recover, or coming off a big upset and ready for more. Similarly, Lafayette could be staring at 0-4 if things get out of hand early.

And that’s why the first two games of this Georgetown season, at home, drive the discussion thereafter. A 2-0 Hoya team after week two would have a fighting chance for redemption Yale, a better chance at Marist, a split at Bucknell and Wagner, and a toss-up at Howard that could see the Hoyas at 5-2 or better heading into Homecoming. A 1-1 outcome means the Hoyas have its work cut out for them to build some momentum on the road, where it has never done much agaisnt these opponents in the last decade: (0-2 at Yale, 0-3 at Marist, 1-4 at Bucknell). An 0-2 start is a hole this young team does not want to climb out of.

If you don’t believe the power of an quick start, look no further than last season. Coming off a winless 2009 season, the 3-1 start (and a last second loss at Yale) was the story of the season, not the six straight losses which followed. Were it not for the adrenaline from wins over Davidson and Lafayette to open the season, was a 1-10 season in its flight path?

Once again, Davidson and Lafayette are the biggest games of the season, and for a team with two home games thereafter, Georgetown must make the most of them, and give fans a reason to come back in October to see what they’ve done with it. Coach Kelly has raised the expectations game for a program whose expectations have been unusually low in recent years. It’s time to see the Hoyas take its next step forward.

National title game? No.

3-8? Likely.

So how about 5-6? It’s time to see the Hoyas take its next step forward, and for the next two weeks, it's all that matters.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Five Questions, Defense

In the second part of some pre-season questions to consider for the 2011 Hoyas, this column focuses on defense.

1. How good can this defense be? In many years, the defense was considered as good enough to hang in games, but not enough to counter a noticeably weaker offense. In 2011, the Hoyas return seven starters on defense, as experienced a group on the field as any Georgetown team since its days as a MAAC power.

The return of Dan Lenihan to the rotation will certainly help the loss of two starters from 2010, so the Hoyas are almost looking at eight returning starters. But if the defensive line is really going to elevate its role in stopping rush-based offenses (read= Colgate and Lehigh, where the Hoyas are a combined 0-18 since 2001), look to sophomores Charlie Dann (6-2, 285) and John Porter (6-3,250) to be a part of that. Dann is ready for a move into the starting lineup but will have to fight for it, and freshman Mike Roland (6-4,310) can't be overlooked.

Georgetown finished the 2010 season ranked fourth of six PL teams in defense. Yes, there's experience, but yes, there's more to be done.

2. Can the linebackers step up? The pre-season prospectus wrote that "Three of the team's top nine tacklers, all three inside linebackers have graduated, including...Nick Parrish."

If Robert McCabe and Jeremy Grasso are the mainstays on the outside, a new middle LB will be vital for setting the tone for the defense. Senior Nate Zimmel didn't get as much starting time behind the mainstay of Parrish, and freshman Nick Alfieri could have a role before all is said and done. Sophomores Jon Brucia and Sean Campbell are at a point when they can legitimately challenge in the two-deep, but the sooner the Hoyas can settle on an middle LB, the sooner the outside backs can begin to get a rotation and into a rhythm.

3. How good is the secondary? Very good. Nothing against the freshmen, but don't be surprised if you don't see much of the newcomers with five seniors and a junior ahead of them on the depth chart. Some combination of junior Jeremy Moore and seniors Wayne Heimuli and Jayah Kaisamba are all candidates for all-Pl honors.

Georgetown finished last among the six active PL schools in pass defense--while they often bent but did not break (18 INT's),teams began to respect the secondary later in the season. A strong secondary may force teams to rely more on the run, which can help the Hoyas focus more strength up front. Heimuli, who has battled injuries in his college career, was nothing sort of a fearless tackler in high school and it would be great to see him really return to that level as a senior at Georgetown.

4. Any changes at kicker? Don't expect any. Brett Weiss seems set at PK and Matt MacZura had a solid freshman season at punter. For the first time in the Kelly era, the Hoyas did not add a kicker to the recruiting class, and that's a sign that its kicking staff (including sophomores David Conway and Devon Papandrew) can get it done in the years to come.

5. Can Time of Possession Be Controlled? This statistics has bedeviled the Hoyas over the years. As I wrote last year, "However, there is one statistic that cannot be ignored: time of possession. Georgetown's defense was on the field over 35 minutes a game last season, and you cannot win consistently when the defense gets worn out like that over the course of a season. Obviously, the offense could do a lot more on its part, but for its own sake the defense needs to work on improving third down conversion rates, particularly early in the season when the legs are still fresh and injuries and attrition have not yet taken its toll."

This year's defense is strong enough and experienced enough to do its part; inevitably, the offensive game plan will drive much of the inequity on time of possession that saw Georgetown average less than 26 minutes a game in possessions--which begets a tired defense.

With five straight road games from Sep. 17 through Oct. 22, the defense will be tested to be rested and ready. if the Hoyas have what it takes to weather this storm, it will be led on the defensive side of the field.
In Kevin Kelly's five seasons the defense has held opponents to 10 of fewer points just five times. Not encouraging, of course, but realize that three of those five were accomplished last year (Davidson, Holy Cross, Marist). 2011 could be an opportunity to match those numbers and give the offense a chance to compete into the fourth quarter of games that once were not competitive.

The experience is there, now it's time to put experience to the test.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Five Questions, Offense

There's no denying it--football season is around the corner, and for those that wonder about it, Georgetown is back at work trying to improve on a 4-7 record which looks better than what it was.

The Hoyas started 3-1, yes, but thee of these opponents were in their first game against Georgetown's retooled offense and Holy Cross took a siesta in the second half in the fourth. While Georgetown played well in these games, the element of surprise was in force in the Lafayette win and the near-upset at Yale. By October, with tapes exchanged and opposing coaches tuned in to the style of play, Georgetown dropped quickly, losing six straight before earning a 14-7 win over Marist that should not been that close.

So, half-full or half-empty? It's August, so I'll go with half-full. And returning to some pre-season questions, fans need to take note of a simple truism--the defense will come to play every week, but unless the offense steps it up, it'll be another long season.

1. Quarterback-- Safety or security? The Darby-Kempf rotation returns for a third season. Is experience the better teacher, or is Georgetown playing it safe with the platoon system? In Scott Darby, you have a quarterback which can run the option and lead the various run-heavy formats that Dave Patenaude (and before him, Jim Miceli) favored, but he has never been a prolific pocket passer. By contrast, Isaiah Kempf is comfortable looking downfield, but seems a step slow in the backfield. I think there were two, maybe three games where opposing coaches saw this too, keying on the Darby-Kempf rotations as telegraphing Georgetown's game plan. In one game, Kelly substituted the two QB's by play, which was no less successful in 2010 than it was nearly forty years earlier, when Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry tried to solve the riddle of his own QB dilemma by substituting Craig Morton and Roger Staubach likewise, and all it did was give the Chicago bears' defense a field day in the backfield.

Georgetown needs to see more efficiency from its quarterbacks and a little more in the way in surprises. Absent an unforeseen appearance from backups Aiken and Skon, the two veterans provide a level of comfort for the coaches in that they understand the system better than anyone, but it's got to work better than it did in the second half last season.

2. Are the backs too small? It seems that there hasn't been a sizeable running back at the Hilltop since when, Marcus Slayton? With the likes of 5-8 Wilburn Logan, 5-8 Dalen Claytor, and 5-7 Brandon Durham figuring to get many of the carries, the coaching staff should be taking a look at 6-0, 215 lb. Nick Campanella, who moves into the backfield in 2011. No, there isn't a Slayton or even Charlie Houghton out there, but if Campanella can reduce some of the defensive keys on the smaller backs, Georgetown may be able to build a more effective running game and not one where the defense floods the holes for the backs and puts Darby and/or Kempf on improvisation mode. Since the position of fullback has fallen out of the GU vocabulary in lieu of the slot receiver, the Hoyas could use some bigger backs to help out Logan and Claytor hitting the trenches. For now, anyway, smaller ball is what they have to work with.

3. Watch That Line. After years of the Hoyas fielding the smallest offensive line in the patriot league (once starting a 240 lb. center), this year could see a change in that perception. With five returning linemen over 300, the Hoyas have size, but must replace four starters up front which is never easy.
A big addition will be the return of junior Fino Caliguire from injury, and the efforts of Donald Rhodes and Kevin Sullivan continue to improve each season. Two to watch from the underclassmen will be sophomore Fred Eggert and sophomore Thomas Gallagher. That Gallagher was a little too big for the line was in evidence last season, when his 365 lb. frame could not fit into a standard sized jersey--he's dropped 20 lbs. according to the pre-season prospectus and could be a big help on the line if his conditioning improves.
Patriot League teams win on the offensive line.

There's a big difference whey Lehigh and Colgate are playing in late November and Georgetown and Bucknell are making plans for basketball season--it's the line. A step up for the Georgetown line this fall is two steps up for the team.

4. Just Given Them The $%$%# Ball! No, there's no Keyshawn Johnson on the sidelines, but for the first time in Kevin Kelly's six seasons on the unfinished Multi-Sport Field, he has some real options at receiver. The return of Brandon Floyd, the speed of Ken Furlough, and the toughness of Patrick Ryan could give the quarterbacks a number of options down the field...if Georgetown will do so. Line of scrimmage passing, made somewhat famous at GU by Matt Bassuener shortens the field and allows opponents to jam Georgetown inside. Slot backs are fine for the line of scrimmage, but this is the year Georgetown needs to start looking long--if the line can do its part, Floyd, Furlough, and Ryan can as well. Georgetown had just three completed pass plays over 40 yards all season, and they should at least twice that this year if the gamelan accounts for it.

5. Who Will be The Player To Watch? I'll admit it, I've proven a poor prognosticator in picking a player that will take games over, once hoping Tucker Stafford would get his shot at QB, that Charlie Houghton would get a second wind, or that Keerome Lawrence would put down the jitters and hold on to the big catch. Instead, in 2011 I'm rooting for Donald Rhodes across the line, an outside candidate for all-PL honors based on his development over his first two years. No matter how many of the PL experts would hold their nose to select a Georgetown lineman to league honors, if Rhodes and the line can do its part, the Hoyas have a lot more options to make a difference on the offense, and a lot less excuses than they've had in recent years.

One of the by-products from the 2010 season is that the Hoyas can't sneak up on anyone this year. When Frank Tavani and Tom Gilmore warn their squads about Georgetown, the kids will listen this time. It's time to add a couple more believers from the PL coaching fraternity that this offense is capable of knocking them around.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Eight Ways To Improve The Patriot League

Tuesday marks the Patriot League’s annual Media Day, though if you live in Washington, New York, or anywhere west of Allentown, PA, chances are you’ll read very little or nothing about it.

The event, conveniently located for the press that covers Lehigh and Lafayette sports, allow sportswriters to enjoy a luncheon and ask some questions to the coaches of the various schools in advance of game day stories this season.

Most of the cast is familiar with each other, even Kevin Kelly, returning for his sixth media day, the most of any Georgetown coach. With no changes in the head coaching ranks among the member schools, the questions figure to be much the same and the responses much the same, mixed in with some coach-speak. For example, which of these quotes from last season’s media day could be attributed to Coach Kelly’s thoughts on the 2010 season?

a) “My biggest concern is getting through healthy. We don’t have a lot of depth right now; our numbers are down a little bit.”

b) “We're worried about where we finish, not where we start.”

c) “Don't let the past affect you too much, don't let the future affect you too much. Live in the moment. If we can master that, and it's hard because this is an emotional game, we've got a chance.”

Actually, none of these. These were quotes by a) Colgate’s Dick Biddle, b) Lafayette’s Frank Tavani, and c) Bucknell’s Joe Susan, but you get the idea. No one is going to say something too far off script (well, maybe Tavani) and no one is going to upset their athletic director’s lunch by teeing off on the scholarship divide or the Patriot’s diminishing returns as a competitive I-AA conference. Everyone’s 0-0 and looking forward to the opening of the season.

As for the pre-season polls, Colgate and Lehigh will be at the top of the coaches and media poll (again), Bucknell and Georgetown at the bottom (again), and all is well at the Green Pond Country Club.

The scholarship issue hasn’t gone away, however. In December 2010, we wrote:

“The presidents arrived last week to make a decision [on scholarships] , and they decided, well, not to decide at all. There’s a old saying that “not to decide is to decide.” But in this case, it is not a decision as much as a stalemate, for as Samuel Johnson observed centuries earlier, "Present opportunities are neglected, and attainable good is slighted, by minds busied in extensive ranges and intent upon future advantages." In football terms, the scholarship issue was on the 20-yard line. The league could go in for the score, or punt. Instead, it took a knee and ran out the clock. What does this mean (or in this case, not mean) for Georgetown?...This is an alarm clock ringing on the future of the Patriot League and of Georgetown’s options within it. Georgetown can use this as a clarion call to reengage a increasingly distant alumni population which has grown tired in the Kevin Kelly era, to build a culture of sustained giving, one which men’s basketball and rowing has successfully maintained for two decades, but which football has never mustered the cause to develop….Or, Georgetown can hit the snooze button and wake up in two years, and found that the house has burned down.”

This is but one of a number of issues, some great, some small, which the PL would do well to reflect and refocus on before the house really does comes down. With that in mind, eight suggestions to (re) start the dialogue:

1. Make a decision: introduce scholarships for football, beginning in the 2014 season. The raison d'etre of the PL was never a ban on athletic scholarships, but of student athletes being representative of their class. For those that proffered the argument that an athletic scholarship would be an impediment to a representative class, well, that ship sailed with the rest of the league’s sports nearly a decade ago when scholarships were approved. So why not football?

If the argument can be made that athletic scholarships in basketball and other sports have been introduced and have proven successful towards the PL’s goals of student athletes that are consistent with the league’s goals, the time has come to acknowledge that it can do so in football without the irrational fear that Lehigh will not become the next Ohio State or that the Colgate will adopt the same standards as Ole Miss.

Yes, there are Title IX and competitive considerations, each of which can be addressed by two points: 1) no school is required to offer and athletic scholarships, and 2) to address the short-term needs of the conference to meet these considerations, the PL would adopt a plan by which no amount of aggregate merit (athletic) scholarship aid would exceed the amount of need-based aid offered in a four year average of recruiting classes. Put another way, the PL would move towards a 31.5 scholarship plateau, with the option to award enough need-based aid so that those schools who wish to be a counter for I-A non-conference purposes (57 merit and/or need equivalencies across no more than 85 players) could do so by awarding a comparable amount of need-based aid. A school could offer full scholarships, half scholarships, or such money as it sees fit for Title IX purposes, but so that the merit portion of the aid awarded would not exceed the need based aid awarded.

And yes, this recommendation does not bring Fordham back. A school with 63 scholarships by 2013 isn’t dropping half of them for the purpose of rejoining the league. The PL can’t get the votes for 63 scholarships this and last year’s tabling proved it. Could the PL get a vote internally for fewer grants instead? I think it can.

Would 31.5 scholarships affect competitiveness? Of course it would. Not every school has the ability to offer this much aid (read=Georgetown), but most do and none would not be required to do so, anyway. Of the six PL schools excepting Fordham, four offer at least 31 or more in need-based equivalencies right now, with Bucknell close behind. If a school couldn’t offer as many for Title IX or financial reasons based on a 25 man class (more on that below), that’s OK--what it could offer would still be better from a competitiveness quotient against schools outside the PL that is hurting the league ability to compete.

This recommendation impacts Georgetown the most in the near-term, but it’s the long term interests on scholarships that will sink or the swim the league as a whole. Sure, the PL could stay non-scholarship among GU, Lafayette, Holy Cross, and Bucknell, and give a pass to Colgate and Lehigh. But the day Colgate or Lehigh leaves the league to pursue scholarship football elsewhere, the Patriot League must end its sponsorship in football. Why? The PL bylaws require five full-member schools to play in a sport for the league to sponsor it, and only five such schools do so now. Barring the development of intercollegiate football at American (unlikely), the PL can only continue if all five current full-member schools stay together, regardless of Fordham or Georgetown.

And what about Georgetown? Can it cover an additional $3 million in scholarships a year across football and comparable women’s sports? As of this writing, no. But even as few as four scholarships a year could give the coaches options with kids that it cannot even get close to today, all because of the cost of higher education and the inability of GU to offer aid to parents with higher family incomes. As cited on this blog in 2010:

“In past years, Ivy and PL schools followed similar aid formulas that made it theoretically comparable to accept an offer from Brown versus, say, Colgate. That has changed. Examples are noted at FinAid.org:
Brown: Eliminated parent contribution in financial aid formula. Eliminated any loans for household incomes (HHI) under $100K, caps total indebtedness to $20,000 for any student with a HHI over $150,000.
Columbia: Eliminated parent contribution, replaced all loans with grants. No debt for HHI under $60,000.
Cornell: Eliminated parent contribution for HHI under $75,000. Caps loans at $3,500 per year for HHI under $120,000, caps loans at $7,500 above $120,000.
Dartmouth: No loans for HHI under $75,000.
Harvard: No parent contribution needed, no loans offered. Families with HHI over $120,000 expected to pay no more than 10% of their income for tuition.
Pennsylvania: No loans.
Princeton: All loans converted to grants.
Yale: No parent contribution under $60,000, sliding scale of 1%-10% of income expected to pay for tuition.

"There are some families that will pay less for their kid to go an Ivy League school than they would if their kid went to a state school," said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz to FinAid.org.

And they are not alone. In addition to schools like Duke, Stanford, North Carolina, Caltech, and more than two dozen no-loan programs among major colleges, Patriot League schools are getting into the fray: At Lafayette, no loans are offered to families with a HHI under $60,000, and cap loans above this at $2,500 a year. A similar program is found at Lehigh.

Where you won't find this--football or not, is Georgetown. The money's not there. And as Ivy and PL schools become more competitive aid-wise, scholarship or not, the means by which Georgetown can remain competitive for students and student-athletes becomes ever less productive. “

Can Georgetown even compete against scholarship schools? Its record against scholarship programs outside the league since 2000 isn’t great (2-10, .200), but compared to its record in the PL during that same period (8-52, .133), it begs the question—if Georgetown can schedule Wagner, Howard, or Sacred Heart (all of which offer football scholarships), and live to tell the tale, why wouldn’t it do the same with Lehigh and Colgate?

This recommendation is not intended to be Solomonic. Instead, a scholarship policy that rests on twin pillars of merit and need could allow the PL to be as competitive in football as it is on other sports without destroying its relationships with the Ivy League, while improving the student-athlete experience for those that can attend and excel, but may lack the means to do so without scholarship support.

Finally, a brief note about the Ivies. Adding scholarships in basketball did not cause the PL to run over the Ancient Eight: last season, the scholarship PL was a mere 9-12 (.428) against the non-scholarship Ivy in men’s basketball. Given the Ivies’ advantages in recruiting lower income families with full need aid, the rivalries can be enhanced by a more competitive product against the Ancient Eight across the sidelines, and in a way that does not split the PL in two.

2. Remove standardized test scores from the Academic Index. The Patriot is one of three conferences in college sports (the other being the Ivy and the Division III NESCAC) which artificially limit athletic recruiting classes based on the self-satisfying perception that grades and SAT scores qualify an athlete for admission. Note that no such index is used to admit or deny music majors, English majors, or the like at any of these schools, only self-identified athletes.

While I would do away with the Index altogether, this mathematical exercise is sacrosanct in many PL quarters north of the Mason-Dixon Line. What I would then offer is to end the use of the SAT scores in index consideration, moving the banding process to one based on grade point averages, or what is called the converted rank score (CRS).

The bias inherent in standardized testing are well known. Holy Cross no longer requires the SAT as a means of admission, and a growing number of SAT-optional schools could render the Index inert in quantifying recruits which take the SAT and those that do not. Four years in a classroom is a better predictor for college than four hours in a SAT test, and if banding of recruits is considered essential for the PL, let’s focus on core grades and not on the vagaries of standardized testing, which would also make the PL more attractive to possible expansion (more on this below, too.).

The PL will not go the way of Oklahoma if recruits are banded by GPA’s. If an index must be maintained, the CRS may be the fairest way to do it.

3. End the association with Fordham University. That’s a difficult recommendation to a fellow PL school after 20+ years in the league, but Fordham is clearly moving its program beyond the league and it’s time for all parties to be up front and admit it. Unless the league completely adopts Fordham’s scholarship model in 2013 (and shows no signs of doing so), the Rams are leaving, and everyone knows it. What does another season in 2012 accomplish at this point?

If 60+ scholarships doesn’t change your view of the future of Fordham football, perhaps Vaughn Scott will. Over the summer, Fordham signed Scott, a talented RB who was considered a non-qualifier after a combination of GPA and ACT scores left him below the NCAA minimum for a grant-in-aid (a number that is leagues below the Patriot’s Academic Index scores.)

Scott was headed to a prep program called the Atlanta Sports Academy when his high school coach recalculated his GPA and found him eligible to earn a scholarship after all. Fordham was one of four schools which offered along with Towson, Stony Brook and Monmouth. “I thought I’d have to take that extra year and raise my grade-point average, but now I can start my college career”, Scott said.

We wish Scott well, but Fordham is clearly planning for a future that does not involve the PL’s goals and/or its academic restrictions. Recruiting and signing the best players available at the NCAA threshold is neither immoral nor unethical, and it’s accepted practice at over 200 Division I schools from Alabama to Youngstown State. But for the Patriot League, it is not and has never been.

Fordham, to its credit, made its own decision that it was no longer willing to play under the PL’s rules to build its football program. That having been said, the PL is not under any duty to maintain ties with a school whose admissions standards and scholarship commitments are now reaching outside the league’s bylaws. Maintaining an extra year with Fordham on everyone’s schedule (that does not count in the standings) does neither side much good in the long run— a scholarship Fordham may pummel around a lot of PL teams on its way out the door in 2012, and it’s not a good thing for potentially the best team in a conference to be ineligible for its title in the first place.

The PL presidents should give Fordham its notice at the conclusion of the 2011 season, allow the Rams the option to continue to play some or all the PL schools previously scheduled in 2012, and wish the Rams well in its transition to a new conference affiliation. When Georgetown left the MAAC in 1999, five schools opted to continue to play the Hoyas in its transition year, but three did not. Georgetown went 3-2 against the five MAAC teams and went 0-3 against pending PL foes Holy Cross, Fordham, and Bucknell, finishing 5-6.

4. Commit to expansion as early as the 2014 season. “When we first started the league and the presidents would meet, we would tell one another 'We're building a model that others will follow,” former Holy Cross president John Brooks S.J. once said. “So far,” he added, “no one has followed." And to be frank, no one will join the PL in its current form with the Scylla and Charybdis of non-scholarship football on one side of the harbor and a SAT range out of reach for nearly every school outside the Ivy League across the other side. Reforming the league’s scholarship policy and its means of evaluating recruits could open the door to some interest by those schools to whom the PL would be a more competitive proposition under those parameters than what it currently maintains.

With Fordham departing, the PL needs eight schools, not six or seven, to maintain competitive conference play and to achieve numerical parity with the Ivy League. To that end, it should approach two schools for full membership—the Virginia Military Institute and Bryant University. In the absence or failure of those discussions, it should consider associate memberships in football for Duquesne University and Marist College.

For all the past talk about inviting the likes Villanova, Richmond or William & Mary, that ship has sailed, nor will schools like Maine and New Hampshire risk a fan insurrection to move teams to what is considered an inferior conference to the CAA. By contrast, VMI (enrollment: 1,375) fits the PL standard of academic and athletic excellence, has a natural affinity with the service academies, and forms a geographic pairing with Georgetown in football and American in other sports. The Keydets have always fought above its weight class in the competitive Southern Conference, and in moving to the Big South Conference, the wins haven’t followed, either. As anyone at Annapolis or West Point will tell you, athletic recruiting is challenging at a military academy. It’s a little shocking to think that VMI hasn’t posted a winning season in football since 1981, but anyone who has seen them play knows VMI gives 110% in every game and a gameday in Lexington is a tradition all its own.

VMI would be an outstanding candidate for PL admission, and grandfathering its existing scholarship support gives the school the opportunity to move without the backlash that other rumored PL candidates of the past soon faced.

Similarly, Bryant would be more amenable to considering the PL with a scholarship component, adds a New England tie with Holy Cross, and has the rising academic chops to build the PL brand. Bryant is a newcomer to the scene, having started football in 1999 under former Georgetown offensive coordinator Jim Miceli. In the last five seasons, Bryant is 35-20 (.636), defeated Fordham last season in its only prior meeting against the PL, and opened a small but functional 4,400 seat stadium before it moved to Division I-AA. Visiting its web site, it’s clear Bryant has institutional aspirations beyond that of most NEC schools, and has an enrollment (3,370) and accept rate (43%) common with many PL schools.

If neither of these schools seek to move, Duquesne and Marist, the last of the MAAC survivors, might be options, at least for football. Each fits the current PL footprint, already compete against PL schools, and would not upset the current eight team alignment in other sports (i.e, Army, Navy, and American). The move  to the PL would be a step up for both schools, as it was for Georgetown, but would also provide renewed interest in their football programs and open the door for games with the Ivy League. And while schools like Monmouth would appear a more competitive football-only option, Monmouth cannot play football in the Patriot and remain in the Northeast Conference for other sports; of course, it hasn't shown interest in leaving the NEC and this continues to be the case. On the other hand, Duquesne (A-10) and Marist (MAAC) can federate (play in the PL) for football and still maintain their membership in their primary conferences, much like Georgetown and the Big East.

Villanova could do so as well, but did we already say that the ship has sailed?

5. Establish an Ivy-Patriot challenge week. Any new school to the PL is going to learn a lesson that Georgetown has faced for the last decade—getting on an Ivy schedule is a political and logistical nightmare. Not only do some PL schools enjoy 3-4 Ivy games a year and don’t want to give that up, but the vagaries of the 10-week Ivy schedule may not give some PL schools the means to play them amidst their open dates.

Resolved: block out the PL’s week 3 (week 1 in the Ivy calendar) with all eight PL and Ivy teams facing each other that weekend, rotating each year so that over an eight year period, every PL school will play every Ivy school at least once. (If the opponents for any one year intersect with an existing series, that series would be adjusted so the teams do not play twice in the season.) Example:

Brown vs Bryant
Columbia vs. Colgate
Cornell vs. Bucknell
Dartmouth vs.Lafayette
Harvard vs. Georgetown
Pennsylvania vs.VMI
Princeton vs. Holy Cross
Yale vs. Lehigh

These names were picked largely at random, but not quite. For instance, Harvard has never played Georgetown, nor Brown vs. Bryant, and Penn and VMI have only met twice (last in 1921). But it’s also surprising that in 120 years of football and all the supposed ties between the Ivy and PL, Dartmouth and Lafayette have met just eight times ever, Princeton and Holy Cross just ten. A week where new rivalries are explored and old ones revisited each year offers schedule stability for both leagues, and renewed interest at the member schools.

Instead of Georgetown playing Yale for six straight seasons in week 3, for example, it would rotate through games like Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, etc., providing interest for fans and recruits alike. Properly promoted by both leagues, this would be a win-win for teams that are hardly recognized in the college football landscape by mid-September.

6. Limit freshman recruiting to 25 signings. With or without scholarships, schools that are signing 30 or more freshmen (and inevitably losing a certain number of these a year later) are not well served by large recruiting classes, which invites claims of overrecruiting of positions to which the previous class was signed.

Patriot League schools don’t need to sign 30 kids because somehow only 20 will be eligible in the fall, nor does anyone want a situation where financial aid and/or scholarships are put into question when a player is less than productive after a season. Continue to allow walk-ons, but limit signings (and the presumed admissions offers these entail) to a more representative number of recruits each year (which would include transfers) that works for the coaches, for the recruits, is favorable to Title IX pressures, and is a reasonable impact upon the sport as a whole. If the Southeastern Conference can get by with 25 signings, so can the Patriot League.

7. Standardize the schedule. Did anyone find it strange that Georgetown was nearly finished with its 2010 league schedule when Lehigh was just about to start theirs? The odd juxtaposition of Patriot league schedules to accommodate Ivy League slots for some schools and not for others needs to be fixed. The last five weeks of the Ivy League season are for in-league competition only. The Patriot League should adopt the same rules, and with an eight team schedule as envisioned above, no one would need to be playing out of conference after mid-October to fill out a schedule.

Further, what prevents the league from standardizing and promoting rivalry games beyond Lehigh-Lafayette? The Bethlehem and Easton folks get one game to end the season, every year but no one else does. Colgate’s regular season finales over the last four years have been Bucknell, Holy Cross, Georgetown and Fordham and while there may be a rivalry game in there somewhere, it’s not always much to end a season on. Why is this? Is the league telling us that only one rivalry game matters, and the others are out of luck?

If Lafayette-Lehigh can always be the end of the season, so can Colgate and Bucknell, Georgetown-Holy Cross, or whatever matchups it sees fit, but let’s get them set. Attendance at Fisher Stadium won’t be harmed if another rivalry game is recognized at week 12 on the PL calendar.

8. Develop a strategy for league-wide TV and radio coverage. The league congratulated itself last month for entering into a two game national package with CBS College Sports for PL football—yet, only one of the two games is actually a conference game. For a league which has severed ties with the Worldwide Leader and figures to get even less ESPN coverage as a result, what does one league game do per year to a highly fractious media strategy across some schools which maintain their own TV and radio networks, and some which have neither?

Regardless if the broadcast is carried through WFMZ, Time Warner Cable, FiOS, or the like, the PL would be well served by some sort of “Patriot League Network” branding which would allow these games tape-delay carriage across other platforms, including the CBS cable channel or other sites, and including a PL online channel.  The opportunities for a branded streaming broadcast seems an unappreciated opportunity for a league that recruits nationally, with parents and alumni across the nation who would not otherwise see their teams play. Similarly, why not investigate opportunities in satellite radio? Sirius has a lot of extra bandwidth on Saturdays that could host a Patriot League game on one of its channels.

Lots of points to consider, any one of which would make the Patriot a different and potentially more competitive league in the months ahead. For now, anyway, it’s on to Media Day , where at least one coach will claim his team has a chance to compete for the championship, and three months later, will see it come to fruition.