College football upsets highlight every fall Saturday, but not all are created equal. How do the biggest underdogs pull off the most improbable wins?
When Rice football meets Texas on the gridiron on Saturday there won’t be anyone in the stadium unaware of the chasm separating the two teams. Texas, although soured by a close loss to LSU a week prior, is still a Top 15 team with College Football Playoff aspirations. Rice is looking for their first win of the season and their first win over the Longhorns since 1994. The biggest college football upsets always start out with equally insurmountable odds.
Some would call an upset of this magnitude all but impossible. And that’s mostly true — team’s separated by such a talent gap rarely play close games, let alone upset-worthy contests.
But it happens. Every single year.
Every season the college football world is stunned when an “unbeatable” national brand falls to an underdog, a team who seemingly came out of nowhere to stun the nation. The thing is, if Rice can do the unthinkable and beat Texas, they won’t even be the first distant longshot to pull off an upset of that caliber this season.
Starting with Georgia State’s shocker against Tennessee in Week 1 and stretching back to Appalachain State’s wild win over No. 5 Michigan in 2007, I’ve detailed the who and the how behind some of college football’s biggest upsets in recent memory with the help of media members who know these games well. If Rice football wants to be next on the list, these are the blueprints to follow.
2019 | Georgia State over Tennessee
Scott Watkins, 247 Sports
Scott Watkins primarily covers Troy, a program familiar with big-time upsets. The Trojans famously knocked off Ed Orgeron and LSU at Tiger Stadium in 2017. Meaning to ask him about that thrilling upset, Watkins mentioned another piece he’d put together shortly before the 2019 season — one detailing what needed to happen for lowly Georgia State to knock off the Tennessee Volunteers. Not only did his prediction come true, but the details of how it would need to happen were spot on.
Watkins called for staying strong in the trenches, sticking to the team’s own strengths rather than resorting to gadget plays, winning the turnover battle, surviving the Tennessee surge and winning on special teams. Entering the fourth quarter, Georgia State had done each of those. Tennessee led 23-21, but the Panthers were right in the thick of the fight.
Then the dam broke. Georgia State exploded for 17 points in seven minutes. Tra Barnett and Dan Ellington had touchdown runs. Brandon Wright delivered the dagger, a 48-yard field goal with 2:37 to play.
Scott’s biggest takeaways
“Georgia State needs to find success in all five categories in order to call down lightning in Neyland on Saturday. That may seem a daunting task for a young program coming off of a two-win season, but this is college football and the Sun Belt has certainly seen crazier.”
2007 | Appalachian State upsets No. 5 Michigan, 34-32
Zach Bigalke, Saturday Blitz
Perhaps the biggest upset in college football history almost never happened. Appalachian State didn’t have Michigan scheduled until February 2007, claiming an open spot in the Wolverines schedule after their original opponent had backed out. App State was coming off back-to-back FCS National Championships, but the talent gap was so wide that sportsbooks didn’t publish a betting line, expecting Michigan to win with ease.
Not only did App State hang with Michigan, they pushed the home team to the brink. In the end, it all came down to a 37-yard field goal attempt for Wolverines’ kicker Jason Gingell. What happened next has become one of the most iconic moments in underdog history:
Zach says the incredible finish was no fluke. “[Corey] Lynch and Jerome Touchstone had worked regularly on a play they called the Furman Block. With the two lining up wide of Jake Long, Touchstone drew Michigan blocker Shawn Crable out of the play, freeing Lynch for a free run on the kicker. On the final kick, it worked so well and Lynch had such a clear path that he almost overran the kick as it hit him in the stomach.”
You don’t see many Top 10 teams scheduling FCS champs nowadays, making the setup for an upset of this caliber almost unrepeatable. But it does give testament to one unwavering tenant of this sport: anything can happen on any given Saturday.
Zach’s biggest takeaways
“App State came into this contest with supreme motivation while their opponents largely thought their counterparts were walkovers. (That is almost certainly a given in pretty much all upset situations.) While the AP stated before the game that they ‘aren’t expected to be anything more than sacrificial lambs’, the Mountaineers did not harbor that expectation for themselves.”
2013 | UCF upsets No. 8 Louisville, 38-35
Eric Henry, Underdog Dynasty
Led by Teddy Bridgewater, the undefeated Louisville Cardinals seemed on a collision course with Florida State in the ACC. UCF was 5-1 at the time, but Blake Bortles and company wasn’t expected to be able to go toe to toe with Bridgewater or future NFL wideouts Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker.
Louisville marched out to a 28-7 underscored by a defensive touchdown midway through the third quarter, putting the underdog on the ropes. Then the rally started.
As Eric Henry recalls it, “the recipe for their comeback was equal parts their own doing as much as it was Louisville taking their foot off of the gas.” Staked to a three-touchdown lead with seven minutes to play in the third quarter, Louisville relaxed.
UCF kept fighting. The Knights outscored the Cardinals 31-7 over the final 22 minutes, capped off with a two-yard touchdown pass from Bortles to Jeff Godfery in the final minute.
Eric’s biggest takeaways
“The thing that stands out to me vividly is just how quickly the Louisville crowd was taken out of the game by the time the 4th [quarter] started which is a huge factor when trying to pull off the upset on the road.”
2016 | Houston upsets No. 3 Oklahoma, 33-23
Sam, Scott and Holman Podcast
The stakes of the Houston Cougars’ 2016 season opener against No. 3 Oklahoma could not have been any higher. Houston was being mentioned as a possible dark horse to reach the College Football Playoff. Far from a Cinderella, the odds still slanted significantly away from this Group of 5 program set to square off with Baker Mayfield.
As good as Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. was in this game (23/40 for 321 yards and two passing touchdowns) the Cougars were able to trade punches with Oklahoma into the second half thanks to a deeper-than-expected roster.
It was speedster Brandon Wilson, not Ward, who broke the game open midway through the third quarter. He returned a missed field goal by Sooners’ kicker Austin Seibert 100 yards for a touchdown. The kick would have given Oklahoma a 20-19 lead. Instead, the favorite trailed 26-17.
As Sam put it, Wilson was one of a collective of unheralded guys “outperforming their recruiting rankings, but with the underdog mentality.” The nobodys had become somebody’s. “This is what every Group of 5 school fan base wants, but rarely gets even at resource-rich schools like the University of Houston.”
Staked to that two-score lead, Houston would hold Oklahoma to a lone fourth-quarter touchdown, never being threatened after the huge special team’s play thrust them into the driver’s seat.
Sam’s biggest takeaways
“The 2012-14 Houston recruiting classes would produce 17 players who went on to either be on an NFL roster or be named to multiple all-conference teams. That’s incredible when you consider none of those 17 players were rated higher than a 3-star by any recruiting service. Most of those players were still on the Cougar roster in 2016, guys like Greg Ward Jr, Tyus Bowser, Matthew Adams, Steven Dunbar, Brandon Wilson and Steven Taylor. ”
2018 | UCF upsets No. 7 Auburn, 34-27
Eric Henry, Underdog Dynasty
This UCF upset had very different circumstances than the 2013 game. Rather than falling behind and having to rally, UCF kept things close with Auburn in the Peach Bowl. Auburn led 3-0 after the first quarter; that was a statement in itself.
From there, UCF was on an even-enough footing to mount a counter assault. Following a strip-sack of Jarrett Stidham by the UCF defense, McKenzie Milton’s second quarter touchdown run gave UCF a jolt of energy.
Eric reiterated, “Score quickly”. UCF had three scoring drives in that second quarter. Two of them lasted less than one minute, the third took just over three minutes off the clock. Suddenly, a narrow Auburn lead turned into a 13-3 halftime deficit, officially placing the SEC favorite on upset alert.
The teams traded blows in the second half. With UCF keeping the margin within a touchdown the entire time. Then the Knights lowered the hammer. Chequan Burkett nabbed a pass from Stidham near midfield and returned it for a touchdown, pushing the UCF advantage to 34-20 with 5:56 remaining in regulation.
Eric’s biggest takeaways
“You need some type of big-play. Something that says to the favorite that you can play on their level.”
2018 | Old Dominion upsets No. 13 Virginia Tech, 49-35
Ed Miller, Virginia Pilot
An innocuous home-and-home series took a turn for the worse for Virginia Tech when starting quarterback Justin Jackson went down with an injury. The game was dead even through the first half and stayed close through the third quarter, with Old Dominion trailing 28-21 entering the fourth.
Merely staying with the No. 13 Hokies was impressive, and Old Dominion had done so by not overthinking their plan of attack. Wide receivers Travis Fulgham and Jonathan Duhart would each finish the year with more than 1,000 yards. They were the focal point of the Monarchs’ attack. Fulgham caught nine passes for 188 yards and a score. Duhart grabbed nine of his own for 142 yards and three touchdowns.
Duhart’s final touchdown of the game broke a 35-35 tie with five minutes to play. Running back Jeremy Cox finished the Hokies with a 40-yard score in the final two minutes to salt away the win.
Ed’s biggest takeways
“In ODU’s case, they found something that worked and stuck with it. Namely they were able to exploit match-ups on the outside in the passing game. ODU was also playing at home, which certainly helped. They had an older team – with 21 seniors. I think in some cases an underdog with experience can beat a more talented squad that might be younger.”
So how does an underdog pull an upset?
As evidenced by even these select few games, no upset is created equal. The differences between the Georgia State’s and UCF’s of the world couldn’t be any more readily apparent. But both were able to achieve their goals.
There’s something to be said for the mental fortitude of each of these teams. They clearly didn’t believe their games were unwinnable, more so, they continued to fight when faced with deficits that lasted even into the fourth quarter. They knew that any close game could turn on its head in an instant. These games did.
Momentum changing plays, particularly on special teams, were huge — look no further than Houston’s 100-yard missed field goal return or App State’s game-winning field goal block.
All of that is predicated on having enough talent on the roster to stay in the game. Rice has proven they’re much better than they were a year ago. Are they talented enough to keep pace with Texas? We’ll just have to wait and see. I can tell you this, there’s not a single person on South Main who believes the Owls can’t do this.
Rice football knows its identity. They know the formula to keep a talented opponent on the ropes. All that’s left is to execute, get a few breaks, and hang on. If they can do that, the 2019 Owls can add their name to this illustrious list of underdogs.
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