(STATS) - Despite an encouraging end to last season with the prospect of returning many veteran players this year, the Cornell football staff opened the offseason by posting a blank depth chart in the team's locker room.
At Columbia, the coaching staff has been busy changing the approach of its players as much as making adjustments in the two-deep.
Neither Ivy League program has enjoyed much recent success, but both began to see light on the horizon last season that perhaps this year they can slip through the door when nobody's looking.
Not surprisingly on Tuesday, there was a far drop to last year's two cellar-dwellers in the Ivy League's preseason poll, which was fronted by the three defending champions - Harvard picked as the favorite with Penn second and Dartmouth third. Then it was Yale, Princeton and Brown before Columbia was picked seventh and Cornell eighth.
Same 'ol, same 'ol in the Ancient Eight?
"We think we will be much more competitive than we've been," said Columbia second-year coach Al Bagnoli, who previously won eight Ivy titles at Penn. "We think we're doing all the right things. We have kids who are buying in."
"It's just a matter of showing them," Cornell fourth-year coach David Archer said, "that the difference on a Saturday afternoon isn't as big as they really think."
Cornell and Columbia received a much-needed bump in publicity last week with their inclusion in the top 100 of a list ranking all-time college football programs. But when you factor in what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, your father's Ivy League, even your older brother's, is not your great-grandfather's Ivy League.
The two New York state rivals found a lot of their historical success before there even was an Ivy League. Columbia's Ivy title in 1961 is the only one in program history, and the Lions haven't had a winning season since 1996. Cornell has the second-fewest Ivy titles with three - most recently in 1990 - and the Big Red are seeking their first winning record since 2005.
But being that it's August, there is optimism. Maybe it's not unfounded, either.
Columbia (2-8, 1-6 Ivy) lost six times by eight points or less in Bagnoli's first season in New York. Meanwhile, Cornell (1-9, 1-6) let three potential wins slip away, and after beating Columbia by a rather fitting 3-0 score, the Big Red were competitive in a season-ending loss at Penn.
"We had to have buy-in, we had to have trust, in addition to us being able to evaluate our kids' ability level of what they could and couldn't do," Bagnoli said. "You fast-forward a year and I think we've tried to do a good job in addressing all those issues. I think there's been a change in the culture here. I think we have a little bit more confidence and a little bit more exuberance and a little bit more swagger than what we had when we took over the program."
"We're entering Monday (the opening of preseason camp) with 124 guys on roster," Archer said. "Now league rules (say) you can only have 110 to camp, which is what we'll have. But having the ability to say to the guys in January, 'Hey, you're going to have to compete just to get a spot in camp,' really drove up (competition). And we had our best offseason, best spring practice to date so far."
For Columbia, it's important for quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg, in his second year after transferring from Florida, to avoid similar injuries of a year ago. Five of last year's six leading tacklers, including co-leaders linebacker Keith Brady and safety Christian Conway, return on defense.
Up in Ithaca, Cornell brings back 15 starters, although it will have a change at quarterback if sophomore Dalton Banks unseats senior Robert Somborn. The Big Red feature one of the better defenders in the league in safety Nick Gesualdi and perhaps the best punter in the FCS in Chris Fraser.
Neither team is ready to challenge for the league title considering more incremental steps are necessary. But the league could take on a different complexion after last year's finish marked the first three-way share of the title since 1982. On graduation day, Penn lost 10 starters, Harvard saw 12 depart and Dartmouth lost 17.
"The trust testament is, who is the next man up?" said Penn coach Ray Priore, who succeeded Bagnoli last season. "The key to success … is don't forget how you won previous years.
"You just hope the kids develop and rise to the occasion, are opportunistic when given the opportunity to make their imprint in the program."
IVY LEAGUE FOOTBALL PRESEASON MEDIA POLL=
1. Harvard (7 first-place votes), 126 points
2. Penn (9), 119
3. Dartmouth, 83
4. Yale, 81
5. Princeton, 79
6. Brown (1), 61
7. Columbia, 43
8. Cornell, 20