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Developing a Profile for the Successful Underdog

Teams that want to claim to be the best in college football must prove they can beat the other top teams in the country, but also must navigate an increasingly difficult environment where the underdogs are better equipped than ever. A team’s perceived strength relies just as much on handling the lesser teams on the schedule as it does coming out with wins against the premier teams.

Ronald Martinez

The last several years have featured a host of upsets on weekends that have thrown the college football world for a tumble. They're exciting for the unaffiliated third party, dreams come true for the teams pulling the shocker, and crushing for the victims. By looking at the teams pulling these upsets, can we build a profile for what kind of team is pulling off the upset, or are these games merely a blessing from the football gods on unsuspecting Saturdays?

For our purposes, I'll define an upset with the following: the favored team will have finished the regular season in the top 5 of the BCS poll, and the underdog will be outside the top 15 at the time of the game. We'll be using the final regular season poll for the favored because it matters more what the team ends up being rather than what we thought they'd be early on (eliminating 2012 USC from a team being "upset"), and is unaffected by bowl season rank shake-ups (but we'll count bowl upsets). We'll also be using the game time ranking for the underdog to signify teams that may have snuck up on the favored, and haven't been given the rankings boost for pulling off the upset (pulling in Texas A&M's 2012 upset over Alabama, which should be an upset despite the Aggies' year end ranking).

The upset losses suffered by 2012’s BCS Top 5.

#2. Alabama - November 10th 29-24 home loss to Texas A&M (#15 in BCS at the time)

The lone loss by Alabama, to upstart Texas A&M, is well documented. The Aggies, led by Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, used their up-tempo spread offense to build an early lead on the Crimson Tide, and held them off to spring the upset. The defining feature of this Aggie team is the offense, which finished the season in the national rankings: 3rd in total offense per game (2nd in yards per play), 11th in rushing yards per game (2nd in yards per carry), and 14th in passing yards per game (15th in yards per pass attempt). In addition, Manziel finished 8th nationally in completion percentage. Note: Alabama averaged 38.7 points per game in 2012.

#3 Florida - January 2nd 33-23 loss to Louisville in Sugar Bowl (#21 in BCS at the time)

After dropping a top 10 contest to Georgia, and losing the tie-breaker in the SEC East to the Bulldogs, the Gators were paired with Big East Champion Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, where prolific passer Teddy Bridgewater paced a solid Louisville offense to the upset victory. While the Louisville offense wasn't among the most explosive in the country (43rd nationally in yards per play, 15th in yards per pass attempt, 106th in yards per carry), Bridgewater was a thoroughly effective trigger-man for the offense. His efficient performance in the Sugar Bowl exemplified a season he finished top 8 nationally in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. Note: Florida averaged 26.5 points per game in 2012.

#5 Kansas State - November 17th 52-24 road loss to Baylor (unranked at the time)

A week after ascending to the top spot in the college football rankings following Alabama's loss to Texas A&M, Kansas State lost its opportunity to compete for a national title by getting run out of the stadium by offensive nightmare Baylor. Art Briles' Bears have become an offensive juggernaut with his ability to meld strong offensive lines, fast wide receivers with wide splits, and dangerously effective quarterbacks. The 2012 Bears finished 2nd in yards per game (6th in yards per play), 4th in passing yards per game (3rd in yards per pass attempt), and 14th in rushing yards per game (24th in yards per carry). Note: Kansas State averaged 38.8 points per game in 2012.

The upset losses suffered by 2011’s BCS Top 5.

#3 Oklahoma State - November 18th 37-31 road loss to Iowa State (unranked)

We've reached the first (and only, really) true head-scratcher upset of the exercise. #2 Oklahoma State, a day after a tragic plane crash claimed the lives of 4 people involved in the Oklahoma State athletic program, dropped a Friday night contest in Ames, Iowa to well-coached yet unspectacular Iowa State. The prolific Oklahoma State offense, behind experienced signal caller Brandon Weeden and dynamic receiver Justin Blackmon, struggled on the night, committing 5 turnovers and only scoring 7 points in the second half. The poor second half helped Iowa State close a 17-point gap and pull out the upset in second OT. The Cyclones were un-spectacular in nearly all facets of the game in 2011, but are well coached by Paul Rhoads and took advantage of its opportunities on the evening. Note: Oklahoma State averaged 48.7 points per game in 2011.

#5 Oregon - November 19th 38-35 home loss to USC (unranked in BCS due to sanctions, #18 in AP)

The 2-loss USC Trojans won a late season contest in strong-at-the-top Pac 12 against Oregon in the league's opening season at 12 teams. After dropping contests to unranked Arizona State and highly ranked Stanford, the Trojans brought the strong passing attack (15th in passing yards per game, 27th in yards per pass attempt) led by veteran signal caller Matt Barkley and talented wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee to upset the Ducks. A 38-14 3rd quarter lead was enough to hold off the Ducks, despite a late surge that would cut the lead to 38-35. Barkley would finish the season 10th in passing yards per game and 9th in completion percentage. Note: Oregon averaged 46.1 points per game in 2011.

The upset losses suffered by 2010’s BCS Top 5.

#4 Wisconsin - October 2nd 34-24 road loss to Michigan State (24th in AP at the time)

An early loss at Michigan State proved the only regular season loss for Wisconsin in a strong 2010 season for the Big 10 (the Badgers would later fall to Andy Dalton's TCU Horned Frogs in the Rose Bowl). The three headed rush attack of James White, John Clay, and Monte Ball (all rushed for around 1,000 yards on the season and more than 5.4 yards per carry) was able to rush for 184 yards on 29 carries, but QB Scott Tolzien only managed 11/25 passing for 127 yards a TD. The performance wasn't enough to match Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, who threw 20/29 for 269 yards, with 3 TDs and 2 INTs while converting 9 of 18 MSU third downs. On the year, Cousins was ranked 9th in completion percentage, 19th in yards per pass attempt, and 18th in passer rating. Note: Wisconsin averaged 41.6 points per game in 2010.

Of the 6 upsets counted in the last three seasons, the following trends appear:

5 of 6 teams featured strong passing attacks, predominately led by QBs with high rates of completion (4 ranking top 10 nationally in their season).

4 of 6 teams lost November conference games, 2 of the 4 coming at home.

6 of 6 teams were held under the season scoring average. If they scored their season average, 4 of the 6 teams would have won their games.

A quick look at the trends shows teams having sub-par nights offensively that aren't able to overcome a team featuring a strong passing offense. The takeaway is that teams have smaller margins for error when facing a strong passing game, and the more often you face such a team, the more likely you are for an upset. And the poor offensive showings aren't necessarily a result of facing strong defenses that finished highly ranked, but facing defenses that created opportunities for the offense and took advantage of miscues. With many of these games taking place in November, the likelihood for bringing a team that is tired and/or injured and prone to off nights offensively increases the danger of these upsets.