The Greatest College Sports Upsets

8. 1985 (Football): UTEP 23, BYU 16

The Cougars were ranked 7th in the country at the time, coming off a national championship, and had only lost one of their previous 30 games. UTEP went into the game winless.

So how did UTEP pull it off? By playing just two defensive linemen and nine defensive backs, shutting down BYU's vaunted passing attack. If your offense is so one-dimensional that you can't run all over a team playing just two men up front, you deserve to lose. It was UTEP's only victory of the season.

7. 2007 (Basketball): Gardner-Webb 84, Kentucky 68

This upset prompted a rule change, one I have bitched about every year since in this column, by the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament organizers.

In the 16-team early-season tournament, the first two rounds are played on four campus sites featuring one marquee team and three scrubs, with the winners of the four mini-tournaments going on to Madison Square Gardens for a round of semifinals and finals.

Well, one of those teams in 2007 was supposed to be Kentucky, but GWU upset the 'Cats and got the trip to the Garden instead. That hurt ticket sales, so they changed the tournament format so that the four premier teams make the trip to New York no matter how poorly they do in their home-court mini tournament. Hooray for greed! Gardner-Webb finished the season 16-16.

6. 1998 (Women's Basketball): Harvard 71, Stanford 67

Famously, a No. 16-seed has never defeated a No. 1-seed in the first round of the men's NCAA tournament. It's going to happen sooner or later though, as there is more parity in college basketball (and football) each year. More and more scouts say it's more difficult to differentiate the good players from the great ones, because so many high schools using the same training regimens that turn everyone into Adonises with speed.

Women's sports are different. There are still great gaps between the great teams and the good teams, and the good teams and the poor teams. That's why UConn can set a new winning streak record, and why the same UConns, Tennessees, and Dukes are on top year after year.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that a No. 16-seed has beaten a No. 1- seed in the women's game ... and these early-round games are not played on neutral courts like the men, but at the home of the highest seeds. The Crimson accomplished their feat as a straight-up road team.

5. 1991 (Basketball): Richmond 73, Syracuse 69

Although no No. 16-seed has beaten a No. 1 seed in the men's game, a handful of No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2s. But I have to give this spot to the first team to do it, the Spiders. (Why aren't more teams called the Spiders? How many great, menacing logos and mascots are possible with that name?)

Richmond never trailed in the game, and although it took a few years, Richmond has moved on up to the basketball-tough Atlantic 10 conference, where they will never be small potatoes again.

4. 2007 (Football): Stanford 24, USC 23

This was during the invincible (and illegal) years of USC football, although no team over that span was more prone to lay an egg against a middle-of-the-road Oregon State or UCLA team.

Still, Stanford was terrible! terrible! terrible! that year. It was a case of last place vs. first place, in Los Angeles, and the Cardinal was without their starting quarterback. Stanford was a 40-point underdog. Even UTEP above was only a 35-point 'dog.

But the backup quarterback who etched his name into college football lore that day, Tavita Pritchard, threw a TD pass on the last play of the game and Stanford amazingly won.

When betting on football, you can either bet against the point-spread, or straight-up on who will win the game. When you pick a heavy favorite to win, you naturally don't get much of a return on your investment. For example (I'm grossly oversimplifying here, but just to give you an idea), if you bet on an 100-1 favorite to win a game, you have to put up $100 to win a dollar.

So what high rollers will do is bet huge amounts on these favorites so that they still win a not-negligible amount of money. Say, $2 million to win $20,000.

But then, something like this game happens, and they lose their $2 million. That's why they have a word for these games that cost them their fortune: bridge-jumpers.

3. 2007 (Basketball): George Mason 86, Connecticut 84 (OT)

Every year, I make a point of noting the smaller-conference team that makes it the furthest in the NCAA tournament (dominant teams from otherwise-negligible conferences, like Gonzaga and Butler last year, don't count). Usually, that last one flames out in the Sweet 16. Rarely, one makes it to the Elite 8. More often, none make it past the second round. But only George Mason has made it all the way to the Final Four.

Although really it was a series of upsets that got GMU to the promised land (victories over defending champs North Carolina and higher-seeded Wichita State), I remember the glorious Elite 8 game against UConn like it was yesterday. I was heartbroken when the game went into overtime; this is where Cinderella so, so often cracks and turns back into a housemaid.

But not the Patriots. They out-muscled, out-hustled, and out-shot UConn. They gave the viewer a sense that they really belonged there, that they weren't underdogs at all. It was truly an inspirational performance, rife with significance for the mid- and low-majors.

2. 2010 (Football): Jacksonville State 49, Mississippi 48 (2OT)

This was the season opener for both teams, and Jacksonville State ended up being pretty good, while Ole Miss finished the year at 4-8. So in terms of sheer improbability, this game should not be ranked this high. JSU earns this ranking on style points alone.

I'm a connoisseur of upsets. If it's not one of my favorite teams playing, I almost always root for the underdog. Paying attention to upsets has taught me the form in which they typically take place. 95% of the time, the underdog starts fast and takes a surprising lead (that part happens all the time, even if the underdog ends up getting blown out). Then the favorite stops sleepwalking, gets their act together, and takes advantage of their superior talent to come back. But sometimes, realizing history is at stake, the underdog steels their nerve, makes few or no mistakes, and hangs on. That's how textbook upsets occur. More often the underdog either chokes or gets overwhelmed when the favorite starts taking the game seriously.

What never, ever, ever happens, is the underdog mounting a big comeback to beat the favorite. Except it did here. Ole Miss was up 31-13 going to the fourth quarter. Think about how rare it is for an evenly-matched team to come back from a score like that.

And yet, somehow, someway, Jacksonville State did. Again, I consider the way they pulled their upset to be unprecedented. They outscored the Rebels 21-3 in the final quarter, pulling even with 39 seconds left and converting the two-point attempt.

When they trailed by a touchdown in the second overtime, they scored their own ... on 4th and-15 from the Mississippi 30.

They went for two, and the win. It was a prayer of a shovel pass, blindly thrown into a sea of players. Somehow, a Jacksonville State player emerged with it. This game, simply put, needs to be more hyped and remembered.

1. 2007 (Football): Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32

I've been perusing other writers' "greatest upset" lists, and this seems to be the prevailing No. 1 for college football. I concur. Michigan was ranked No. 5 at the time of the game. Prior to this, a 1-AA team had never beaten a top 25 opponent.

It made Appalachian State, as much as a non-human entity can be, a star. Their game the following year against LSU was put on ESPN2 (LSU won in a blowout, snuffing out the ASU candle) ... and was a hyped event that football fans were excited about. It made Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards a household name. 1-AA guys usually need to break records to land on the national radar, yet this was the season opener for both teams.

More tellingly, it sent the Wolverines into a tailspin from which they still haven't recovered. They ended the year ranked a disappointing No. 19, although they capped the season with a great win over Florida in the Capital One Bowl. This past year, they finally returned to a bowl, getting blown out by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

In the interim? No bowls, lost to a MAC school (Toledo), and finished a combined 3-13 in Big Ten games. Needless to say, they haven't beaten Ohio State in that time, but Ohio State's dominance reaches back further than the Appalachian State game: The Buckeyes have won 7 in a row in the series, and 9 out of the last 10. These are halcyon days for Buckeye fans like me. Michigan football (and basketball for that matter) are gifts that keep on giving.

Honorable Mention: 1990 (Basketball): Michigan State 75, Murray State 71 (OT)

The most famous near-upset in college basketball was in 1989, when No. 16-seeded Princeton came oh-so-close to slaying mighty Georgetown, falling in the end 50-49. Given the historical cache that game has garnered, you'd probably think that it is the closest a No. 16 seed has come to defeating a No. 1 seed.

Not so. Just a year later, Michigan State was the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Regional, and needed overtime to get past No. 16 seed Murray State. WHY DOES NO ONE EVER TALK ABOUT THIS GAME? I don't understand it. We treat Princeton/Georgetown like it was the nearly the Miracle on Ice, and most people probably don't even know that another No. 1 seed needed to play 45 minutes to get out of the first round. It doesn't seem fair. The only (and somewhat ugly) theory I can muster is that people are more attracted to the Princeton/Georgetown narrative: scrappy nerds outsmarting, outthinking, and outplaying the tough "urban" team. Murray State is a state school in rural Kentucky that non-college sports fans are unfamiliar with.

Final Note

I do not consider a good team from a power conference beating a great team from a power conference to be anything more than a minor upset. That's why North Carolina State beating Houston in the 1983 championship game, and especially Villanova beating Georgetown in the 1985 championship game, do not qualify. Villanova almost beat Georgetown in both of their regular season matchups, for crying out loud. Yet in other "greatest upset" lists, this one is often No. 1.

In all the games I have listed above, there was a vast difference in talent, athleticism, and (with the possible exception of Stanford/USC) resources between the underdog and the favorite. That's what makes these upsets far, far more unlikely than Villanova beating Georgetown. And that is truly what an upset is all about.

Comments and Conversation

February 24, 2011


You did a great job researching these games and making them come alive for the reader. As someone who is new to the world of college football, I appreciate how you took the time to explain why each game was a true upset.

Thank you!!

February 24, 2011

Brad Oremland:

Nice piece, Kevin — a very enjoyable read.

I would love if you specified “Men’s Basketball”, though, since you did the same for women’s.

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