Upsets aplenty in college football, but why? Oct. 8, 2007 By Dennis Dodd CBSSports.com Senior Writer
Let's eliminate the time worn. Scholarship limitations have little or nothing to do with the Year of the Upset. That's a cliché. Outdated.
The 85-man scholarship limit (down from 95 in 1991) started 16 years ago. Former child stars have made it through jail, rehab and divorce -- twice -- in that amount of time.
A spreading of the wealth? That doesn't explain why Duke still loses and why Florida still wins -- two national championships within that span.
Coaches predicted in the early '90s that the quality of play would suffer with less scholarship players.
Uh, no. The game has never been better. Interest has never been higher. In fact, if the NCAA is worried about cost containment it might want to trim a few more scholarships.
About the only stockpiling being done these days is at USC, which can afford to turn away recruits under Pete Carroll. That makes it even harder to explain the biggest upset of all time Saturday at the Coliseum. The Trojans have future first-round draft picks all over the field. Stanford had been routed by at least three touchdowns in their first three Pac-10 games. They were on the road using a backup quarterback, led by a coach in his first season in I-A.
Scholarship limits didn't help Appalachian State. It went into the Michigan game with 20 fewer scholarship players on Sept. 1. Or ask Drake, which beat I-AA Illinois State on Aug. 30 with no scholarships.
But something is happening out there. In the last two weeks, teams ranked in the AP poll have lost 20 games. Last week, almost half of the top 25 lost -- 11 teams. From 1980-2006 there were only nine upsets by underdogs of 30 points or more according to betting expert RJ Bell of Pregame.com. There have been two more in the last 36 days (Syracuse over Louisville, Stanford over USC).
That's not counting Appalachian State beating Michigan (Las Vegas doesn't set lines in games involving I-AA teams) and a slew of other upsets this season.
A few theories as to why:
The basketball theory: One or two talented guys can make the entire difference in a basketball program. Look at Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. at Ohio State.
It's becoming that way in football. A group of players, say 10 guys out of a recruiting class, can make the difference in a program, with speed being so key in the modern game. Illinois is suddenly a factor in the Big Ten race because of Ron Zook's recruiting classes.
Most of those classes feature speed at their core.
In the 1960s and '70s, offenses didn't have to operate much outside the tackles. Receivers were less important. Now it's imperative to have a tailback who can turn the corner and receivers who can run. A quarterback who can take off doesn't hurt either. In a one-game situation things can even out in a hurry. Take Appalachian State. On offense, it was quicker than Michigan's defense.
There's a reason Tim Tebow is getting 45 percent of Florida's carries and accounting for 41 percent of its rushing yards. He is the team's best player. Like a point guard in basketball, he is handling the ball most of the time.
"Offenses are clearly able to get the ball to players out in space," Kansas State coach Ron Prince said. "So much of the spread offense, it's gone all the way down to the high school level. Kids are throwing and catching in games. Kids who were playing basketball and were out for the track team are going out for football because it's fun."
The label theory: When breaking down games, sometimes it's best not to look at the jersey but look at what is inside the jersey.
Most people couldn't name one player at South Florida. Count Auburn among those folks the night of Sept. 8. The Bulls missed four field goals, but Auburn helped them win with five turnovers. Clearly the big, bad Tigers of the SEC underestimated the directional school from Florida.
South Florida is a mirror of what Rutgers was last season when it made its Cinderella run -- tough defensively, capable offensively and anonymous.
The no-respect theory: This is a subset of the label theory. The no-respect angle is widely cited after an upset but hard to define. When, exactly, is an opponent disrespected enough to rise up and pull off an upset? Stanford hung in against USC long enough on Saturday to do two things it had done little of all season: Intercept passes and drive the field. It picked off John David Booty four times. Then, with the game on the line, drove 45 yards against the No. 1 Trojans for the winning score.
"So many times, in all of these guys' lives, they are told that they can't do something ... " Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said, "(that) you can't possibly think or expect that you can beat USC. They hear that hundreds and hundreds and thousands of times. It was about the team, the team, the team. This was one time when the players said, 'Yes (we can).'"
The information overload theory: My son's coaching staff scouted a future opponent on Saturday and turned in a detailed report on Monday. My son is in fifth grade.
The point is that there is so much information available, an industrious coaching staff can sometimes expose weaknesses an opponent doesn't even know it has.
"It's just everything from blocking to tackling to nutrition to speed development to videos and watching tape," Colorado's Dan Hawkins said. "The whole expertise and level of every player has been raised."
Natural causes: It can be rain, wind or snow but don't underestimate the influence of Mother Nature in upsets.
Colorado trailed Oklahoma 24-7 on Sept. 29. Then the Sooners tired out playing at the high altitude. Hawkins had a great game plan. CU held the ball for 38 minutes, leaving a top defense withered for the stretch run. OU's Reggie Smith then gave Colorado the last break when he muffed a punt deep in his own territory.
The magic of the forward-pass theory: We're still not through with offensive revolution, which has seen almost every major offensive "trend" record set this decade.
Each season the NCAA tracks offensive trends in 14 categories. All-time highs have been established in almost every one of those categories this decade. Sometimes twice.
"I think it's the way the game has gone," Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said. "If you give up 350 yards on defense, that's a pretty good defense. You very rarely see a dominant, dominant defense."
Daniel is leading that revolution. At Southlake (Texas) High School, he was running schemes under coach Todd Dodge that just now are finding their way into college.
What's Daniel doing at Missouri? He loved Gary Pinkel's offense. The Tigers are undefeated at this point in the season for the second straight year and are ranked No. 11.
Teams, coaches and players have never been more creative throwing the ball. Currently, teams are passing 47 percent of the time, on pace for another record. Ten years ago that figure was 42 percent.
"I just know a lot can happen a lot in football these days with teams throwing," said another person responsible for the revolution. "Teams just don't run up the middle and punt now."
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier ought to know.
Fantasy Football: "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity"
Stomper made excellent observations. I think it goes back, and stomper touched on it, to the willingness to play and focus and work as a team and all that stuff. Does the .5 second difference in speed make that much difference between determined players? Gen Patton said it. Weapons of war change, men do not change. Same with football teams, the traditional values are what is really important. Call me unrealistic, but there it is.
Acutally, I think that all the reasons Dodd poo-pooped do have a play into the parity. I can see dismissing them singularly, but not as a whole.
2 things that I didnt notice him mentioning:
1) The media: Ten years ago, would any 4-star, or better, recruit have really ever considered a Boise St, Hawaii, MAC, Rutgers, or some other traditional bottom feeder? No way. But now, no matter what school you go to, you have at least a sporting chance of playing on ESPN at some point during the week. Plus with all the college football shows and the internet, if you are truly good, you're gonna get noticed. So, there's no reason to have to sit on the bench and probably waste 2 years of eligibility waiting for his "shot" on a traditional power, when you'll get your recognition wherever you go now.
2) Coaching: Probably due to my first point, more programs are willing to spend more on a coach. Just like with the players, if youre a good coach and a non-traditional power, you'll get noticed. So, theres no reason to labor for years as an assistant coach in hopes of getting promoted, when you can go somewhere else, run the show, and make a name for yourself. The other part of coaching, and I think this is actually bigger than the media reason, is the fact that some of these coaches are just plain better than the coaches at traditional power-houses. Its hard to give specific examples of this, and of course if you buy the point about the media "helping" these non-winning schools, maybe its just not as tough to coach there because its easier to land some talent, but right now, would you take a Bill Callahan over any coach in D-1? Then look at guy like Meyer who was able to win at Utah and is continuing to be successful at Fla. I wonder if were seeing either a glut in talent at the AD position to hire the right people or if theres just a general lack of overall coaching talent right now.