TGS SPECIAL REPORT...SCHEDULE TALK AND UPSET LOOKOUT
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We thought we’d do something a bit different this September, a pre-emptive move, if you will. Though we have yet to experience the sort of earth-rattling upsets that we had already seen by this time a season ago in college football, a few have come close. And there are still plenty of chances for our all-time “upset list” to be breached in 2018, as it was four times a season ago. The reason? Nowadays, almost all games involving FBS entries, including those vs. FCS opposition, appear on the weekly board. Though many of those prices involving FCS teams don’t get posted until Friday or Saturday, most sportsbooks will indeed be taking action on all of the FBS vs. FCS matchups. And it is in a select few of these clashes that most of the monumental upsets have occurred the past few years. Since we still have a few weeks to go in September, we thought it might be interesting to identify some upcoming spots that maybe have a chance to break into our all-time upset list, always a favorite bit of reference material for our readers who will notice it at the conclusion of this piece.
Full disclosure, however, as this exercise is also designed to find something compelling about the rash of FBS vs. FCS clashes that are now over-running the September college schedule. And we’re not the only ones wondering if the health of the college game is really enhanced by the majority of these matchups that too often are outright mismatches. We have some company in this argument, too, in none other than Alabama HC Nick Saban, who, without prompting, started talking about these same sorts of things at SEC Media Days in Atlanta this past July. “I don’t know what good it does,” said Saban, “to keep scheduling these FCS schools. We’re asking the fans to pay good money for these tickets, and everyone keeps expecting them to keep buying for games they know are not going to be competitive. I’m not sure that’s what we should be doing.” Sources tell us the SEC Network, a joint venture with ESPN, has reluctantly gone along with this scheduling practice, though we have also heard “the sports leader” is not too comfortable having to peddle a series of FBS vs. FCS battles to its audience, and would prefer the SEC replace the cupcake non-league games with another conference battle; remember, the SEC still adheres to an 8-game league slate for each school, as does the ACC, while the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 play 9-game loop schedules these days.
Though it should be noted that even Power 5 conference schools are likely to get bulldozed by Alabama, we think Saban has a point. The biggest culprit among major conferences to date has not necessarily been the SEC, but rather the ACC, which played half (7) of its 14-game intersectional slate last weekend against FCS opposition. That was after five such games the opening week. After two weeks, ACC teams have played almost as many non-league games against FCS entries (12) as BCS foes (14). By comparison, the SEC has been involved in nine FCS games the first two weeks. While the ACC has mostly gotten those exercises vs. FCS foes out of the way (there are only two of those combined in Weeks 3 and 4), the kickoff of the season hardly reached a crescendo in the loop. And, really, what purpose is it serving college football to schedule so many games that are such gross mismatches? Last week alone, we saw a pair of 77-0 scorelines (Miami-Fla. over Savannah State and Texas Tech over Lamar). We know the economic argument; many FCS schools are willing to absorb ferocious beatings for a big payday. And, since a twist in the bowl rules a few years ago began to count wins (with a limit of 1) vs. FCS foes for postseason eligibility, plenty of FBS schools gladly took the bait.
We wonder, however, what it is beyond the newer, more lax bowl eligibility rules that now counts wins vs. FCS schools, that has so changed in the scheduling department the past 50 or so years? After all, there were fewer FBS/D-I schools in the 60s and 70s, yet we rarely saw any games involving lower-tier foes “stepping up” to face the big boys. For example, a typical ACC entry like NC State has made a point of scheduling an FCS foe every year since 2002 (even facing two, Murray State and Gardner-Webb, in 2009!). But the Wolfpack used to go about things much differently. In 1968, NC State’s non-ACC slate consisted of Oklahoma, SMU, and then-independent Florida State...all bowl entries, when it was an accomplishment to get to a bowl. In 1969, it was Miami-Fla., Houston, and powerhouse Penn State (the latter two bowl winners). South Carolina, still an ACC member in the late 60s, filled out its ‘68 slate vs. Georgia, Florida State and Virginia Tech (FSU and the Hokies then still campaigning as indies). In ‘69, it was Georgia, Florida State, and Virginia Tech again, plus Tennessee...ranked third in the country when facing the Gamecocks on November 8. No ducking foes in those days for NC State and South Carolina, like most ACC teams of that era. But that's hardly the case any longer.
We suspect that this spate of cupcake-scheduling is beginning to have some consequences, however. College football attendance figures at a variety of locales were down sharply in the first week of September compared to past years. And it wasn’t hard to find the connection...it was almost without fail the lower-level non-conference opposition that caused fans at certain locations to stay away in droves. Perhaps this is to what Nick Saban was referring at SEC Media Days; maybe it won’t be Alabama or Ohio State that suffer attendance drops because of the opposition, but plenty of other schools are paying a price at the box office for these dubious scheduling practices.
But it indeed is “upset season” in September, and while most of the Power 5 schools bully the big underdogs, many of the Group of 6 next-tier conferences often find their members a bit more vulnerable to the big, historic upsets. Such as last year, when Mountain West UNLV and Nevada earned dubious distinctions for becoming victims in all-time Top Ten upsets. (In UNLV’s case the biggest-ever favorite to lose outright when dropping the opener vs. FCS Howard). As a bit of look-ahead, we thought we might highlight some interesting games involving FCS entries in the next couple of weeks. Is there an historic upset lurking around the corner?
September 14: Murray State at Kentucky...Yes, the Wildcats are from a “Power 5" league. But UK isn’t Alabama. And the OVC Racers are catching the Wildcats in a perfect sandwich spot, off of their first win vs. Florida since 1986 (which has caused V-E Day-type celebrations in Lexington), and with ranked Mississippi State on deck. UK has also failed to cover the spread the past three years vs. OVC opposition, even forced into OT by 31½-point dog Eastern Kentucky in 2015. It’s a obvious letdown spot; is MSU up to the task? The Racers are 0-2 but have Old Dominion transfer QB Shuler Bentley, and should bring a kamikaze effort. Alabama A&M at Cincinnati...Do the SWAC Bulldogs have a chance? Well, the Bearcats are apt to be flat after a major upset win at UCLA in the opener and a satisfying triumph over nearby blood rival Miami-Ohio last Saturday. Another regional foe, Ohio, awaits the following week. A&M has displayed some offense for new HC Cornell Maynor, and Cincy can be expected to overlook the Bulldogs. Does A&M have upset capability? Prairie View at UNLV...Here we go...again? Yes, the Rebs should be on alert after the Howard debacle last year, but UNLV was being reminded all last week about that epic loss, and came out fully-focused vs. a downtrodden UTEP, up 38-10 by half and cruising to a 52-24 win vs. the Miners. Some MW insiders, however, think this might be the week the Rebs are more vulnerable. Prairie View is an upper-echelon SWAC entry, almost pulled an upset vs. improved Rice in the opener, stayed with FCS power Sam Houston until the final minutes last week, and has a big-time RB, Dawonya Tucker, who has recorded back-to-back 200-yard games. UNLV has been forewarned!
September 21: McNeese State at BYU...Sandwich alert! The Cowboys show up in Provo between a series high-profile games for the Cougs vs. Arizona, Cal, then right in the middle of a pair of top ten teams (Wisconsin and Washington). After the Arizona upset, the BYU offense didn't look the same and bogged down against Cal. And even two weeks recovery time after facing the physical Badgers was not enough last year for BYU, as it was blown out in its next game by Utah State. McNeese won 9 games last season, has started 2-0, and QB James Tabary passed for 329 yards in the first half last Saturday vs. Houston Baptist. Any spread here will probably not be in historic territory, but it’s an FCS upset alert to watch.
TGS’s list of the biggest upsets since we began keeping detailed records in 1950. The leaders over the last 68 football seasons:
2017...Howard (+44½) over UNLV 43-40 at UNLV
2007...Stanford (+40½) over Southern California 24-23 at Southern Cal
2007...Syracuse (+37) over Louisville 38-35 at Louisville
1985...Oregon State (+36) over Washington 21-20 at Washington
1985...Texas-El Paso (+36) over BYU 23-16 at Texas-El Paso
1998...Temple (+35½) over Virginia Tech 28-24 at Virginia Tech
2012...Texas State (+35) over Houston 30-13 at Houston
1972...Missouri (+35) over Notre Dame 30-26 at Notre Dame
2017...Idaho State (+34½) over Nevada 30-28 at Nevada
2000...Central Michigan (+34½) over Western Michigan at W. Michigan
1974...Purdue (+34) over Notre Dame 31-20 at Notre Dame
2010...James Madison (+33½) over Virginia Tech 21-16 at Va. Tech
2017...Liberty (+33) over Baylor 48-45 at Baylor
1982... Northwestern (+32) over Minnesota 31-21 at Northwestern
1997...North Texas (+32) over Texas Tech 30-27 at Texas Tech
2015...Portland State (+31½) over Washington State 24-17 at Wash. St.
1991...Cincinnati (+31) over Louisville 30-7 at Louisville
2017...Iowa State (+30½) over Oklahoma 38-31 at Oklahoma
2015...New Mexico (+30½) over Boise State 31-24 at Boise State
2012...Louisiana-Monroe (+30½) over Arkansas 34-31 in OT at Arkansas
1999...Rutgers (+30½) over Syracuse 24-21 at Rutgers
2011...Texas Tech (+29½) beat Oklahoma 41-38 at Oklahoma
2010...South Dakota (+29) over Minnesota 41-38 at Minnesota
2005...Ball State (+29) over Northern Illinois at Northern Illinois
1992...Iowa State (+29) over Nebraska 19-10 at Iowa State
1969... New Mexico (+29) over Kansas 16-7 at New Mexico
1969...San Jose State (+29) over Oregon 36-34 at Oregon
2016...South Alabama (+28½) over Mississippi State 21-20 at Miss. State
2013...Nicholls State (+28½) over Western Michigan 27-23 at W. Michigan
2010...Jacksonville State (+28½) over Mississippi 49-48 in OT at Ole Miss
2007...Pittsburgh (+28½) over West Virginia 13-9 at West Virginia
2016...Kentucky (+28) over Louisville 41-38 at Louisville
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