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Kali Duffy / Senior Staff Photographer

The Lions open their campaign this weekend, looking to recapture the magic of their 2017 season.

Fresh off football’s best season this century, head coach Al Bagnoli and the Lions will head to New Britain to take on Central Connecticut State on Saturday in Columbia’s first regular season game.

Last year, after experts picked the team to finish seventh in the Ivy League, the Lions shocked the Ancient Eight with a blistering 6-0 start. Back-to-back losses to Harvard and Yale spoiled the then-undefeated record, but the Light Blue won the last two games handily en route to its best record in 21 years: 8-2, good for second place in the league. The Lions’ five-win improvement from the previous season was among the best turnarounds in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision.

Despite graduating eight of last year’s 22 starters, Columbia is returning six All-Ivy selections from last season—highlighted by first-team junior wide receiver Josh Wainwright, who recorded a school-record 1,001 receiving yards in 2017. Wainwright, senior defensive back Landon Baty, sophomore cornerback and kick returner Will Allen, and senior long snapper Patrick Eby were all named to the preseason All-Ivy first team, four of nine Lions named to preseason All-Ivy teams.

Wainwright will be a particularly vital security blanket for the new Lions, who graduated starting quarterback Anders Hill, CC ’18. Hill was a major component of the Lions’ record season and will be replaced under center by sophomore Josh Bean.

The Hillsdale, Illinois native received most of his playing time in short yardage running situations last season, turning his 22 carries into eight touchdowns. He threw only one pass all season— a one-yard touchdown against Harvard—but looked good enough in practice to beat out fellow sophomore Dillon Davis in what turned into a stiff quarterback competition.

Any struggles Bean may undergo as a first-time starter will likely be offset by his support system. He will play behind a stout offensive line and has myriad top-end weapons to throw to on the outside. Behind Wainwright, the Lions boast three other returning starting pass-catchers: junior wide receiver Ronald Smith, a second team All-Ivy pick last season, senior wide receiver Kyle Castner, and junior tight end Rory Schlageter.

In the backfield next to Bean will be junior running back Lynnard Rose and first-year running back Dante Miller, both of whom have high upside, despite little in-game experience at the collegiate level.

While Bean’s inexperience may cause the passing game may take a slight step back, the ground game has nowhere to go but up. The Lions placed dead last in the Ancient Eight last year with a 2.9 yards per carry average, an abysmal number that is likely to trend in a more positive direction with Bean’s tough running style and the addition of Miller.

It’s the defense, though, that will likely steal the show for the second straight year. Baty, a team captain for the second straight year, is the leader of a secondary that led the league with 13 interceptions a year ago. While turnover numbers tend to fluctuate year-to-year, Baty, Allen, and returning starters senior Ryan Gilbert and junior Ben McKeighan lead a fearsome unit of defensive backs that should again be as good as any in the Ancient Eight.

Although the defense has slightly downsized from last season—replacing big-bodied seniors across the defense with younger, lighter bodies—players like McKeighan see this as a positive.

“I think you’re gonna see a really fast defense this year,” McKeighan said. “I think you’re gonna see a defense that’s more athletic than it’s ever been, and we’re gonna create a lot of turnovers.”

While this Lions team has clearly defined strengths and weaknesses and no game tape, its opponent seems to be the opposite. The Central Connecticut State Blue Devils (1-1) had quite the tumultuous start to the season: the preseason Northeast Conference favorite lost its opener 42-6 to a potent Ball State team but turned everything around in a 55-0 trouncing of Lincoln University (PA). According to Bagnoli, while the Blue Devils’ athleticism were evident in both games, the talent disparity between the two opponents makes it difficult to gauge Central’s true talent.

“The problem is, they played up in week one [against Ball State], and they played down to a Division II school, and not a very good Division II school [in week two],” Bagnoli said. “But we know the starting point is they are athletic. You saw some of the things they did in space against Ball State, then you watch Ball State’s performance against Notre Dame and you know [CCSU is] athletic. To what degree is hard to totally gauge.”

Coincidentally, CCSU is also Bagnoli’s alma mater. He played for the Blue Devils football team from 1972-1974 and graduated in 1975. Saturday will mark his first game coaching at his old stomping grounds.

Bagnoli and the Light Blue head into the game ranked fourth in the preseason Ivy League poll, a minor slight after finishing behind only Yale last season. However, beating CCSU—which went 8-4 in a tough conference in 2017—would do a lot to dispel any doubts around the new-look Lions. It will be interesting to see if having two games already under its belt will be to Central’s advantage, especially given the relative inexperience of many new Lions players.

A tough opening game will throw this latest Lions team directly into the fire. Kickoff Saturday will be in New Britain at 5 p.m. The game will be streaming live online on NEC Front Row. | @zatchmiller

In a previous version of the article, it stated that Saturday’s game would be streamed on ESPN+. In fact, it will be streamed on NEC Front Row. Spectator regrets that error.

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