There’s nothing more satisfying as a football handicapper—whether you do it for money or just for fun—than calling a big upset in advance. That’s especially true in college football, where the wide disparity between teams makes big outright upsets a little bit tougher to come by. However, the big underdog shocker is still there to be found...if you do your homework and put in the time.
In this article, I want to go through six notable Week 1 college football upsets that have taken place over the past five seasons and identify the common themes that may help point us to the next big underdog this coming Saturday, the first full day of college football in 2014.
First, let me begin by saying that these games are *not* cherry-picked to build around a certain theme. I say that, because a theme did develop among them, but all were chosen for review based on a simple criteria—were they true “shock the system” upsets. In five of the six cases, the underdog was getting double-digit points and the only exception won in a blowout that was significant enough to get them included on the list. It was after identifying these six games that the common theme emerged.
With that said, let’s get into our review…
September 5, 2009: Missouri (+7) Illinois 37-9—This game was curious on a lot of levels. Missouri had just come off a 10-4 season still had Gary Pinkel as their head coach (as they do now) and had a returning quarterback in Chase Daniels. Illinois, meanwhile, had gone 5-7 the year before. The expectations were high in Champaign for what would prove to be Ron Zook’s final year at Illinois and this line reflected it. The results on the field brought the Illini crashing back to reality.
September 3, 2011: South Florida (+10) Notre Dame 23-20—Both the Bulls and Irish had gone 8-5 the previous season. South Florida had come off five straight winning seasons and little had happened at Notre Dame to suggest that Brian Kelly, then in his second year, had the program back to elite status—a standing, we might note that the Notre Dame of 2011 had seen only intermittently in the previous two decades. The results on the field told you these programs were pretty close to equal and that held true again on 9/3/2011.
September 3, 2011: UC-Sacramento (+24) Oregon State 29-28—This one really came from off the radar. It’s not as though Sacramento State was a burgeoning FCS powerhouse. The Hornets had gone 6-5 the previous season and would end up with a losing record in 2011. But Oregon State was vulnerable themselves, having finished a subpar 5-7 season in 2010. When they stepped on the field to open 2011, you saw they couldn’t handle being a big favorite.
September 3, 2011: Richmond (+12) Duke 23-21—David Cutliffe was in his third year as the Duke head coach and while today, the Blue Devil program has enjoyed some tremendous success under his stewardship, that was not the case a few short years ago. Duke was coming off a 3-9 season entering this game and lost outright to a program that gone 6-5 the previous year and made a coaching change.
September 1, 2012: Youngstown State (+18.5) Pitt 31-17—Youngstown State has a great reputation, going back to the days when Jim Tressel made a name for himself. But they were coming off a mediocre 6-5 season. Pitt was in the second year of the new Paul Chryst era and gone 6-7 the prior season.
September 1, 2012: Liberty (+25) Wake Forest 20-17—Liberty had a nice team, fresh off a second-place finish in their conference and a #16 national ranking at the FCS level in 2011. Wake Forest was on the decline that would ultimately spell the end of the Jim Grobe era, coming off a 6-7 campaign.
Note that there were no upsets significant to make this list from either 2010 or from 2013. I would also add that we decided to exclude one monster upset from 2009, and it was when BYU beat Oklahoma 14-13 as a 23-point underdog. The reason is that OU quarterback Sam Bradford, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was injured in that game. It’s still a big upset, but it’s predictive value for the future is in question due to the injury.
The key theme that stands out in the upsets we focused in is the favorite, not the underdog. The dogs came in a variety of stripes. Some, like Missouri, were underrated and good teams. Others, notably Sacramento State, were far from it. But without fail, every single favorite was a team that was simply being overpriced by the linesmakers.
It’s easy to get absorbed in the hype of the preseason—maybe a talented head coach in his second year, such as Kelly was at Notre Dame in 2011. Maybe there’s a lot of returning starters that people are assuming will elevate an average team to the next level. Or maybe a Week 1 mismatch just looks so obvious that you feel like any flaws in a team won’t get exposed until later in the year.
We look at all these factors too. There are certainly teams that will be expected to make improvements and will do so, using a Week 1 blowout as a springboard. But other teams have to be made to earn their status on the football field before placing a bet on them.
There are games on this Saturday’s card where favorites fit the pattern of those that tumbled here. Purdue is (-10) over Western Michigan. USC is giving up three touchdowns against Fresno State. New Mexico is (-7.5) over UTEP. And you could further raise an eyebrow at Mississippi State giving more than thirty points against Southern Miss.
So, am I suggesting that you rush out and bet these games? Absolutely not. Every game has its own unique dynamic to it. We need to know how personnel matchups work—does one team have a corner that can lock down the other’s best receiver? Is one team’s defense overly reliant on a great edge rusher who can be neutralized by a top offensive tackle? What are the schedule dynamics—if there’s no lookahead factor for the favorite, the upset possibility takes a hit.
These are just a handful of things that can take a game off our target list. But successful handicapping—especially in college football, with the raw volume of games on the board each Saturday, is about finding starting points and the basis for further research. I hope our review of the recent college football upsets in Week 1 has been able to do that for you.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he founded the Jim Hurley Network. Hurley brings a team approach to handicapping, consulting with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL & college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.jimhurley.comBack to the NCAA Newsfeed