Friday, September 07, 2007

The ten biggest upsets in college football history

Continuing on the theme of Appalachian State's historic upset of Michigan last weekend: was it really, truly, the biggest upset in the history of college football? And what, in fact, are the top upsets in college football? In the wake of this game, I've yet to come across an updated definitive list by ESPN or anyone else, although CSTV's Eric Sorenson takes a good shot at it (putting Appy State's feat second behind Navy's upset of Army in 1950).

So, I've decided to come up with a list of my own.

To me, the "biggest upsets" are those which occur when one program is so thoroughly outclassed and so overwhelmingly outmatched by another in terms of stature, resources, and/or athletic potential that it shouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hades of winning, yet actually pulls it off. These could be either instances of really bad teams defeating really, really good teams, or teams from a lower subunit of the college football world that, against all odds, jump up and bite the elite, high-end programs in the ass.

Instances of a good team beating a better team from the same general level, on the other hand, don't qualify as "big upsets" in my book. #9 Boise State over #7 Oklahoma in last January's Fiesta Bowl might be on my list of the ten greatest games of all time, but not on my list of the ten greatest upsets. The same can be said for #2 Penn State over #1 Miami in the 1987 Fiesta bowl, or #10 Texas A&M over #2 Kansas State in the 1998 Big 12 Championship, or #2 Ohio State over #1 Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, or #13 Kansas State over #1 Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 Championship, or even #17 Boston College over #1 Notre Dame in 1993. All good games, all upsets. But not quite as earth-shattering as, say, Appalachian State over Michigan.

Thus, I bring you the Mean Green Cougar Red List of

The Ten Greatest Upsets in the History of College Football

(By the way, I apologize for the length of this post. If Blogger offered a "jump" feature, I would have used it right here...)

10. Louisiana Tech 29, # 18 Alabama 28 (1999)

Yes, I know that the Bulldogs, led by prolific quarterback Tim Rattay, were a decent team in 1999. But I put this on my top ten for one reason: only two years before, Alabama had been upset by LA Tech 20-26. Bama should have known better than to take the obscure I-A independent from Ruston lightly for a second-straight time.

The 1997 Crimson Tide team had a excuse: they were not very good, finishing the year at 4-7. But the 1999 team, whose only other regular-season loss would be to Tennessee and who would go on to win the SEC championship, had no such defense. To paraphrase an old saying: upset me once, shame on you; upset me twice, shame on me.

Alabama seems to have learned their lesson the second time around, however: they haven't scheduled Louisiana Tech since.

9. North Carolina State 24, #2 Florida State 7 (1998)

Florida State was a college football juggernaut during the 1990s. Consider, for example, that from 1987 through 2000 the Seminoles finished in the AP top five every season, including two national titles. FSU's dominance was also felt in the Atlantic Coast Conference; coming into this game the Seminoles carried a 47-1 record against their ACC conference mates. The Wolfpack had particularly been victimized by FSU during this time, losing games by scores such as 3-62, 17-77, and 17-51. By September 12, 1998, North Carolina State had had enough.

The Wolfpack, who had gone just 12-25 over the past three seasons, entered the game in Raleigh as 25-point underdogs but savaged FSU quarterback Chris Weinke, picking him off an astonishing six times and allowing him to complete only nine of this 32 pass attempts. Weinke's 74-yard bomb to Peter Warrick was all the offense the Seminoles could muster that day; otherwise, it was all North Carolina State. When it was all over, Florida State had suffered only their second loss in ACC play. "Yeah I'm Pretty stunned," Seminole coach Bobby Bowden said after the game. "To get beat like that, I'm very surprised, surprised how we fell apart."

The Wolfpack, inexplicably, would follow up their astounding victory over Florida State by losing to lowly Baylor (!) the following week. The Seminoles, on the other hand, shook off the upset and lost no more games that year until they fell to Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. And they got revenge the following year, drubbing the Wolfpack 42-11 en route to their second national championship.

8. Oregon State 21, Washington 20 (1985)

This game belongs in the top ten simply because it is the biggest upset in college football history in terms of spread reversal. The Beavers, a perennial Pac-10 doormat who hadn't sniffed a winning season since 1970, were 2-4 heading into this game. One of their losses was to Division I-AA Grambling State, and they had been shut out in their last two contests. Needless to say, nobody gave this team a chance when they traveled to Seattle to meet the 4-2 Huskies on October 19, 1985. Washington, having finished the previous season with a win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and a #2 final AP ranking, was expected to make quick work of the hapless Beavers. Vegas certainly thought so; the point spread was +37 for Oregon State. However, the Beavers gave U-Dub all they could handle, finding themselves down by only six points late in the game when they forced the Huskies to punt from deep within their side of the field. The Beavers blocked the punt, recovered it in the endzone for the game-tying touchdown, and kicked the extra-point to seal the win and to notch, in the eyes of the sports-betting world, the greatest college football upset ever.

Unfortunately, Oregon State was unable to use this upset to better the program. They won no other games that season and, in fact, didn't secure another winning football season until 1999. Washington, on the other hand, recovered from the stunning upset to go to their seventh-consecutive bowl game.

7. Cincinnati 17, #9 Wisconsin 12 (1999)

This is an instance from a bad team from the "mid-major" tier of college football beating a good team from the top "BCS" tier. The Badgers were coming off an 11-1 season which saw them tie for the Big Ten title, secure a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA, and end the season with a #6 ranking. With Heisman favorite Ron Dayne at running back, the Badgers were poised to possibly go all the way in 1999. After beating their first two opponents by a combined score of 99-20, the 8th-ranked Badgers made the trip down to Cincinnati (then a member of non-BCS Conference USA) to face a team that had only won two games the previous season and had just lost to Division I-AA Troy State.

Perhaps the Badgers weren't used to the small-but-rowdy confines of Nippert Stadium. Perhaps they were looking forward to next week's showdown with Michigan. Perhaps they just weren't taking the Bearcats seriously. For whatever reason, and in spite of 231-yards rushing effort from Dayne, the Badgers could only manage a single touchdown against a spirited Cinci defense. An apparent score late in the game that was negated by a false start penalty sealed the deal for Wisconsin, and Bearcat fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts.

The Badgers would finish the season with a 10-2 record (they lost to Michigan the following week), a second-consecutive Rose Bowl victory, and a #4 ranking. Ron Dayne would go on to break Ricky Williams's rushing record and win the Heisman. But the loss to Cincinnati remained a blemish on a season that could have been even better for the Badgers. The Bearcats, meanwhile, reverted to their losing ways after the win, ending the season with a 3-8 record.

6. Kansas 23, #2 Oklahoma 3 (1975)

Oklahoma was, without question, a powerhouse of the 1970s. At the time of this game, Oklahoma was working on a 28-game winning streak (dating back to a tie against Southern Cal early in the 1973 season) and a 37-game unbeaten streak. Despite being on probation, the Sooners claimed the 1974 AP title and had their eyes on a second-consecutive championship in 1975. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, were a rather mediocre program, having enjoyed only two winning seasons out of the previous ten. They were 5-3 and unranked when they traveled to Norman to face the #2-ranked Sooners, a team they hadn't defeated in over eleven years, on November 8, 1975.

But, on a day where everything seemed to go right for Kansas and wrong for Oklahoma, the Jayhawks shocked the Sooner Nation. KU's wishbone attack was so successful that quarterback Nolan Cromwell didn't even need to throw a single pass. The Jayhawks also capitalized on Sooner miscues - a whopping eight turnovers and disastrous special teams play - to seal the win.

The upset earned the Jayhawks a spot on the top 20, but it was short-lived. The following week they lost to Colorado, dropping out of the rankings. They eventually ended the season with a loss to Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl and a 7-5 record. Kansas settled back into their pattern of mediocrity the following season, managing only two winning seasons out over the next fifteen. They wouldn't beat the Sooners again until 1984. The Sooners, meanwhile, shook off the embarrassing loss to win their final three games, including a 14-6 victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl - and claim their second-consecutive national title.

5. Carnegie Tech 19, Notre Dame 0 (1926)

It's hard to evaluate upsets that occurred so long ago in relation to more recent upsets, because college football has changed so much over the years. But what is now known as Carnegie-Mellon University's upset Knute Rockne's then-unbeaten Fightin' Irish in Pittsburgh on November 27th of 1926 can fairly be considered the Appalachian State - Michigan of its day, especially considering that Rockne was so sure of a win that he didn't even bother to show up:
Notre Dame was a 5-to-1 favorite against Carnegie Tech, a Pittsburgh-based engineering school that started playing teams outside its region only a few years before. Tech had fewer than 30 players, did little recruiting and was coached part-time by a Chicago-based judge, Walter Steffen. Its football budget was about that of Notre Dame's travel budget.

Yet, during one of those star-crossed moments when a huge underdog finds a tactic or motivational edge that works so effectively it fells a giant, Carnegie Tech was the confident aggressor and Notre Dame was a fumbling, confused and leaderless loser.

Blame it on Rockne for making one of the greatest coaching blunders in history.

Notre Dame had beaten Tech so convincingly the previous four seasons - by a combined score of 111-19 - Rockne chose to watch the Army-Navy game played before a crowd of 100,000 in Chicago. Historians have long spun a tale that Rockne was scouting Navy for the following season, but that appears to cover up his true motives.

The Tartans, fired up at the fact that Rockne didn't take them seriously enough to show up to the game as well as the fact that Notre Dame start its second string against them, opened a halftime lead of 13-0 and kept the Irish out of the endzone for the entire game to notch a 19-0 victory. The loss cost Notre Dame an undefeated season and a possible national title, as they defeated Southern California 13-12 the following week.

After World War II, little Carnegie Tech left the world of big-time college football. They now play non-scholarship football in NCAA's Division III. But their upset of Notre Dame lives on:
Carnegie Tech's brief glory days aren't forgotten. Today, Carnegie Mellon players walk from the locker room to the playing field through the Howard Harpster Hall of Fame, where the 1926 Notre Dame game ball is displayed.
4. Navy 14, #2 Army 2 (1950)

According to Beano Cook, this is the biggest upset in the history of college football. I rank it lower because in rivalries, especially ones as full as tradition and emotion as Army-Navy, anything can happen regardless of the relative strength of the two teams. Nevertheless, it certainly belongs in the top five.

Dating back to the beginning of the 1946 season, the Midshipmen managed an abysmal record of 7-34-2. Army, meanwhile, had gone 39-2-4 during that time period and were on a 17-game winning streak when the two teams met in Philadelphia on December 2nd before a crowd of over 100,000 (including President Truman). The 21-point favorite Cadets, however, had a bad day as they fumbled the ball five times and never found their way into the endzone. Navy quarterback "Zug" Zastrow, on the other hand, had a good day as he ran for one touchdown and passed for another. Army's winning streak was broken, as was their invincibility: the following season, they only won two games.

3. Centre College 6, Harvard 0 (1921)

Another monumental upset from the Roaring Twenties. Harvard was one of the nation's dominant football powers during this time. When they hosted tiny Centre College of Danville, Kentucky (total enrollment: 254) on October 29, 1921, they were working on a 25-game unbeaten streak, a run which included a 7-6 victory over Oregon in the 1920 Rose Bowl.

But, in front of 43,000 fans in Harvard Stadium, the "Praying Colonels" pulled off a miraculous upset against a Crimson team that might have been thinking too much about that showdown against Princeton the following week, and too little of their guests from small-town Kentucky. Centre quarterback Bo McMillin scored the game's only touchdown, a 33-yard run in the third quarter. Centre's extra-point attempt was botched, but in the end it didn't matter. Harvard could not find the endzone, and the game ended with the score Centre 6, Harvard 0. The result, needless to say, was stunning.

Neither school is a member of college football's elite these days; Harvard plays in the Ivy League of the (I-AA) Football Championship Subdivision, while Centre plays NCAA Division III football against the likes of other small southern liberal arts colleges like Hendrix, Oglethorpe, and Southwestern. But the upset lives on. In 1950, the Associated Press named "C6-H0" the greatest sports upset of the first half of the 20th century. In 2006, ESPN Classic declared it the third-biggest upset in the 138-year history of college football (behind Navy's 1950 win over Army and Notre Dame's 1957 victory over Oklahoma).

2. Temple 28, Virginia Tech 24 (1998)

Pete Fiutak at claims that this game is a bigger upset than Appalachian State - Michigan, because the Temple Owls of 1998, in spite of being a I-A program, were much worse than the Appalachian State Mountaineers of 2007:
No, Appalachian State didn't pull off the biggest upset in college football history. ASU, as a program, is a winner. We’re talking about a two-time defending national champion. You don’t do that on any level without having a special something. Of course, there might not be anyone on the ASU two-deep who cracks the Michigan starting lineup, but there have been far worse teams in the history of the sport that have pulled off shockers.

In 1998, Virginia Tech was 5-0 with wins over Clemson, Boston College (who weren’t nearly as good as they are now) and Miami on the road, along with wins over East Carolina and Pitt. Temple was 0-6 and coming off a loss to D-IAA William & Mary. Tech beat BC 17-0, while Temple lost to the Eagles 31-7. The Owls had only won one of its previous 11 games, and that came the year before against a Rutgers team that went winless. A 36.5 point underdog, Temple stunned the Hokies 24-22 in what’s still considered by “investors” as the biggest upset in recent college football history. Had there been a line, Michigan wouldn’t have been favored by more than 30 over ASU.
This upset is even more amazing when one considers that Temple, which is one of the worst programs in major college football and which hasn't had a winning season since 1984, was down 0-17 early in the game. Furthermore, the Owls were playing the Hokies in front of a hostile Blacksburg .

1. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 (2007)

But the more I think about it, the more I think that what happened last weekend is, indeed, the biggest upset in the history of collegiate football. While I think Fiutak has a good point about Temple 1998 being a worse program than Appalachian State 2007, I think the relative distance between the programs is what's most important when evaluating the magnitude of this upset. And clearly, the distance between the Michigan and Appalachian State programs in 2007 is greater than the distance between the Virginia Tech and Temple programs in 1998.

Temple, as abysmal a program as they were (and still are), was at the very least a I-A program that awarded 85 scholarships that was a member of a top-tier BCS conference (they've since been booted from the Big East and now play in the non-BCS MAC) when they scored their upset. Appalachian State, on the other hand, was none of the above. When you throw in the fact that Virginia Tech, as good as they've been over the past fifteen or so years, is not to be confused for Michigan in terms of historical prestige, budget or fan support (the Wolverines averaged 110,026 fans last season; the Hokies, 66,233), it becomes clear that there is a greater gap between Michigan and Appalachian State in 2007 than there was between Virginia Tech and Temple in 1998.

Michigan is the winningest program in college football history. Dubious though preseason rankings might be, they were ranked in the top five and given a legitimate shot at a national title. They were playing at home in front on an announced attendance of over 109 thousand people.

And they got beat by a school that shouldn't have even been on the same field as them. As Stewart Mandel notes:
This was a team with at least 22 less scholarships and one-tenth as much funding as its opponent (according to public data, Michigan’s football program raked in more than $50 million in revenue in 2005-06; Appalachian State pulled in less than $5 million) walking into a 110,000-seat stadium and knocking off a team chock full of five-star recruits and future NFL draft picks.
Appalachian State's upset of Michigan was not your garden-variety upset. It was seismic. Consider this: as a direct result of this outcome, the Associated Press has decreed that Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) teams can now be ranked in the AP top 25 poll.

No, this one belongs at the top.

Honorable Mentions:

Troy 24, Missouri 14 (2004):
This is actually Lee Corso's pick for the biggest upset in college football. But I don't think it's big enough to belong in my top ten. Yes, Troy had only recently made the jump from I-AA to I-A and was playing its first season in the notoriously-weak Sunbelt Conference. And yes, #19-ranked Missouri was coming off an 8-5 season with vaunted quarterback Brad Smith at the helm and was looking forward to making some noise in the Big XII, if not nationally. But this Thursday night, ESPN-televised game from raucous Movie Gallery Stadium in southeastern Alabama had "upset" written all over it, as if the folks from ESPN had scripted it. The game certainly played out as if it had been scripted, with the sky-high Trojans rattling off 24 unanswered points after falling behind 0-14.

An upset? Yes. A feel-good story? Absolutely. The greatest upset of all time? No. It wasn't even the biggest upset of 2004: 2-5 Baylor's 35-34 defeat of 6-1, #16-ranked Texas A&M and 3-4 North Carolina's 31-28 win over 6-0, #3-ranked Miami qualify as more stunning upsets. As it turns out, Missouri was not a very good program that year, finishing the season with a 5-6 record. Troy, on the other hand, managed to notch seven wins and go to their first-ever bowl game as a member of I-A.

Columbia 21, Army 20 (1947): With the entire nation militarized to fight the Germans and the Japanese, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the United States Military Academy fielded the nation's best football program during and shortly after the Second World War. By the time they traveled to New York City on October 25, 1947 to face Columbia, #6-ranked Army had a 32-game unbeaten streak going and was looking to score an easy victory against the unranked, 2-2 Lions. And, as Army led 20-7 in the fourth quarter, that seemed to be the case. But, in a miraculous finish, the Lions scored three unanswered touchdowns to win the game, and end Army's undisputed dominance of the college football world.

Notre Dame 7, Oklahoma 0 (1957): A handful of pigskin pundits, including writer Dan Jenkins, have labeled this game the biggest upset of all time. ESPN Classic ranked it the second-greatest upset of all time last year. But I'm placing it outside my top ten for reasons I've previously discussed: a lower-ranked team (Notre Dame was 4-2 and ranked #20 coming into the game) defeating a higher-ranked team (Oklahoma was 7-0 and ranked #2) is not an upset on the same order of magnitude as, say. Appalachian State - Michigan. Especially when the team doing the upsetting is a traditional power like Notre Dame.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy because it broke what remains to this day the longest winning streak in college football history. The Sooners had enjoyed 47 wins in a row going back to 1953, when they last played - and lost to - Notre Dame.

Oklahoma had won back-to-back AP national titles and had their sights set on a third straight championship when they welcomed Notre Dame to Memorial Stadium in Norman on November 16, 1957. The game turned out to be a defensive struggle, remaining a scoreless tie until late into the fourth quarter; Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson later admitted, "I was willing to settle for a tie." But, with only 3:50 left in the game, the Irish scored on a fourth-and-goal from the Sooner 3. That turned out to be all Notre Dame needed to break a winning streak that has yet to be surpassed.

Holy Cross 55, Boston College 12 (1942): The Boston College Eagles were 8-0 coming into this game. In fact, the impressive Eagle defense had secured five shutouts and only allowed a total of 19 points coming into this match. On the morning of November 28, 1942, Boston College was sitting at the very top of the AP rankings. Beat 4-4-1 Holy Cross, and the Eagles would have a clear shot at the national title.

Unfortunately, the wheels came off on the Eagles' perfect season this afternoon. After allowing only 19 points in their previous 8 games, Boston College gave up almost three times that much to the Crusaders. And their offense, which had averaged 28 points per game during their ten-game winning streak, could only manage a paltry 12 points against the Crusaders defense. The result was a Holy Cross victory, and the end of BC's national title hopes.

Southwestern Louisiana 29, Texas A&M 22 (1996): This is another wonderful example of an obscure "have-not" (now known as Louisiana-Lafayette) playing a football powerhouse (Texas A&M, with a 60-11-2 record over the previous six seasons, had generally dominated the Southwest Conference during its last several years of existence) and winning. It's actually a personal favorite of mine, but I leave it out of my top ten for the following reasons: first, the game was in Lafayette, not College Station (although much, if not most, of the overflow crowd of 38,783 was probably wearing maroon instead of vermilion). Second, the Ragin Cajuns of 1996 were not exactly a horrible team: they were 20-13 over the previous three seasons with two Big West conference championships under their belt. Nor were they bereft of talent: running back Kenyon Cotton, receiver Brandon Stokely and quarterback Jake Delhomme all ended up in the NFL. Third, the 1996 Texas A&M Aggies were not exactly world-beaters; they were barely ranked at #25 coming into the game, having lost to Brigham Young before, and they would end the season with a pedestrian 6-6 record.

However, given the disparities in budget, facilities, fan support, athletic talent, and overall prestige between the two schools, it's still an upset worthy of mention; proof that, on any given Saturday, anything can happen. It's too bad that the Cajuns couldn't leverage this upset to take their program to a higher level; they finished the 1996 season with a 5-6 record, and have had only one winning season since.


Anonymous said...

Thinking I should probably take away the College Football Encyclopedia.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Stanford-USC. not the biggest in history, but significant, especially in the betting age. 41-point favorites just don't lose. they may not cover such a large spread, but they JUST DON'T LOSE!

Thomas said...

Stanford-USC is significant because it replaces my #8 (Washington - Oregon State) as the biggest spread reversal in the history of college football.

Syracuse over Louisville was also a big spread reversal, but not quite as much of a shocker considering it's now been shown that the Cardinals have no defense whatsoever.

Now I have to go back and rewrite the list again!

StatHistorian said...

Enjoyed blog on upsets very much--you really have done your a college football stathistorian, I enjoyed the detailed comments on each game.

Great Job!!


Unknown said...

I'm excited that you took the time to place App State at the top of your upset list. It truly was amazing to be at that game as an App student and fan!

Anonymous said...

You seriously are not going to put Stanford (42 point underdog) win over USC?

Anonymous said...

I disagree with the inclusion of Temple over VT in 1998 in this list. VT wasn't even ranked at the time, and just the year before, they were beaten by Miami (OH), so they clearly weren't that good. Also, Temple is in the Atlantic 10, a large conference. Not a top 10 upset of all times, and no way in the world it's number 2!

Thomas said...

Anonymous 9/17: please note that this post is slightly over two years old and was written before Stanford's upset of USC. I've noted in a previous comment that the 2007 Stanford win over USC will be added to this list should I ever decided to re-write it.

Anonymous 9/19: Please check your facts. Virginia Tech was indeed ranked (#14 AP, #10 Coaches) going in to the Temple game. Also, Temple was indeed a member of the big East for football at the time; it was a member of the A-10 of other sports, including basketball.

Anonymous said...

what about Louisville over Florida State in 2002?

syd barrett said...

Navy's 38-21 shocker over #2 South Carolina in 1984. USC was 9-0 and heading for a nat'l title game in the Orange Bowl. Navy was very bad that year, and they were riddled by injuries - their starting QB and Heisman candidate RB Napoleon McCallum were both out. And they didn't just win, they destroyed USC, leading 38-7 before USC tacked on a couple of meaningless TDs in the 4th quarter.

Thomas said...

And now I need to think about adding James Madison over Virginia Tech to this list...

Anonymous said...

Miami University at Oxford, Ohio's upset of #8 Louisiana State University at Louisiana State University in 1988.

Thomas said...

I found Miami of Ohio beating LSU 12-21 in 1986, not 1988. Is this the game you're thinking of?

Janice Partisio said...

Thanks for this post! This is an awesome list.