Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A flurry of FCS upsets to begin the 2013 season

This blog's visitor stats tell me that over the last few days there has been renewed interest in my 2007 post about the biggest upsets in college football history (which is, incidentally, the most viewed post on Mean Green Cougar Red). I can't help but wonder if this new traffic is being driven by the record number of FCS-over-FBS upsets that occurred over the weekend:
In all, eight FBS teams lost to FCS opponents: Georgia State (Samford), Iowa State (Northern Iowa), Kansas State (North Dakota State), No. 25 Oregon State (Eastern Washington), San Diego State (Eastern Illinois), South Alabama (Southern Utah), UConn (Towson), and USF (McNeese State). That's a new record for a single weekend.

So the visitors not only collected a handsome check just for showing up, they also delighted in the ritual humiliation of their hosts in front of disgusted fans. This included two-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State's takedown of Kansas State on Friday, when the defending Big 12 co-champions unveiled their newly renovated stadium.

But the biggest upset of the weekend belonged to Eastern Washington. Though the Eagles were no slouch - having won the FCS title in 2010, they became just the fourth lower-division team to beat a ranked FBS (or I-A) opponent since Division I split up in 1978. While EWU's 49-46 win over No. 25 Oregon State isn't quite on the scale of Appalachian State's epic shocker over No. 5 Michigan at the Big House in 2007, it did help to illuminate the FCS conundrum facing big-time football programs.
Stewart Mandel explains why these types of results are notable:
FCS teams face no shortage of disadvantages against their FBS foes, most notably fewer scholarship players (63 as opposed to 85), smaller coaching staffs and far fewer financial resources. (Eastern Washington, for example, took an eight-hour bus ride home after its victory in Corvallis.) And that's before taking into account that most of the players in FCS weren't considered good enough to play at FBS schools. [North Dakota State QB Brock] Jensen, a small-town Wisconsin standout, never got an offer from the Badgers. The only offers received by the 6-foot Adams came from two Big Sky schools.
But on any given Saturday ... 
"If you put it all together, it's not some impossible task," said [Eastern Washington head coach Beau] Baldwin. "It's kind of like those teams that play in the NCAA [basketball] tournament. They might not ever be ranked in the Top 25 with those other teams, but on that given Saturday, that No. 14 seed can beat that No. 3 seed."
FCS-over-FBS upsets are becoming more and more common; a few years ago I marveled over six upsets in the first few weeks of the season; this past weekend alone there were eight.

Focusing on the two most notable upsets of the weekend, North Dakota State's 24-21 win over Kansas State, or Eastern Washington's 49-46 upending of 25th-ranked Oregon State: Do either of these games qualify for inclusion in my list of the top ten all-time greatest college football upsets, should I ever get around to updating it?

The outcome of the KSU-NDSU game could be reasonably expected by savvy football watchers (and indeed, Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel made this game his Week One Upset Special). The Wildcats might have won 11 games and a share of the Big XII title last year in route to a Fiesta Bowl appearance, but they were replacing QB Collin Klein on offense and their entire defense. I think KSU was generally expected to experience a drop-off in 2013, as suggested by the AP sportswriters who had KSU ranked #11 at the end of last season but completely out of the preseason top 25 to start this one.

The North Dakota State Bison, on the other hand, are the most dominant team at the FCS level. They are the reigning back-to-back FCS champions, with a 37-7 record over the last three seasons. They know how to win, and they were motivated to pick off a Big XII team that had a lot of rebuilding to do and might not have been taking their opponent as seriously as they should have. This game, in other words, was a recipe for an upset, and nobody should be particularly stunned by its outcome.

EWU-OSU is a bit more of a shocker, if only because the 25th-ranked Beavers were expected to continue the momentum they experienced over the course of  2012 (a 9-4 record and #20 ranking) and perhaps even contend for the Pac-12 title this fall. To be sure, the Beavers looked good on the offense; quarterback Sean Mannion completed 37-of-43 passes for 422 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, while running back Storm Woods ran for 68 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.

Normally, 46 points should be enough to win a football game. But - and as a University of Houston Cougar fan I know this painfully well - it doesn't matter how many points your offense scores if your defense cannot stop the other team from matching you point-for-point. And that's exactly what happened to Oregon State, which lost a lot of key players from last year's defense and was accordingly victimized by Eagle quarterback Vernon Adams (422 and 4 TDs through the air; 107 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground). Expect Oregon State to struggle on defense this season.

Eastern Washington, meanwhile, is a strong FCS team, like North Dakota State. They made it all the way to the FCS semifinals last season and won the whole thing in 2010. They deserved to be taken seriously.

So, as of right now, I would say that neither of these games qualify for inclusion in the list of top ten greatest upsets in college football history. I reserve the right to change my opinion based on how well these teams do over the course of the season, and at the very least perhaps they deserve honorable mentions, but to ten? Eh, come back to me when a truly abysmal FCS team beats a ranked FBS team.

Which brings up a final point. With FCS-over-FBS upsets becoming more common, are these types of matchups going to become a thing of the past as big time college programs avoid the risk of being humiliated? The Big Ten, for its part, is not going to permit any of their schools to schedule FCS teams after 2015. Mandel expects these types of games to continue to be played:
While the push toward stronger schedules is certainly a positive thing for the sport, the fact remains that power-conference teams need a certain number of home games, and they're not going to be able to schedule all of them against opponents from comparable conferences. Football could certainly benefit from more, not less, Cinderella stories. However, Eastern Washington (which got a $450,000 paycheck for Saturday's game) and North Dakota State ($350,000) probably aren't helping their cause. Most ADs want to be sure their "guarantee" games are in fact guaranteed wins.
To that end, and thankfully for my Cougars, there are still a lot of teams from the second division of the college football world that still fit the bill quite nicely.

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