Senior College Football Columnist

Five years ago, App State changed it all, but what's really new today?


Corey Lynch blocks Michigan's field goal to seal the upset. (Mark Campbell/College Sporting News)  
Corey Lynch blocks Michigan's field goal to seal the upset. (Mark Campbell/College Sporting News)    

The most amazing thing was Appalachian State did it with 27 players. Twenty-two starters. Five backups. A few more on special teams. But essentially, that's all it took to beat Michigan almost five years ago.

Twenty-seven players.

What, you've forgotten? Big House, big shock, biggest upset ever. Sept. 1, 2007 came and went, depositing a layer of hope and shame and embarrassment and change. The top-heavy college game that grudgingly allows Cinderellas, chewed up and spat out Goliath that day, lovingly embracing the Mountaineers.

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It made entrepreneurs out of a guy in Boone, N.C. who sold bumper stickers: "9/01/07 The Day College Football Changed." It made a national celebrity of a dreadlocked quarterback (Armanti Edwards). It made the day, the year, the lifetime of fans suddenly riveted in the concourses at Ohio State and Penn State.

It made a 73-year old coach who has seven schools on his resume look back and offer a simple explanation for a lifetime achievement.

"It was hot and we were glad," Mountaineers coach Jerry Moore said of The Day His World Changed. "That's all the depth we really had." But it was hot for both teams. For some reason, one was hungrier, one was fresher, one was faster. How in the name of Bo Schembechler does that happen?

The argument goes on in living rooms, chat rooms and bar rooms throughout the country, but five years later, one simple conclusion remains. We may never see its likes again. Make your case for Stanford over USC only five weeks later. Stanford, a 41-point underdog, at least was an FBS, BCS, Pac-10, major-college program. Appalachian State went to Ann Arbor down approximately 22 bodies, the difference in scholarship limits between the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) and Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA).

In 2010, I-AA James Madison took out No. 13 Virginia Tech. App State already had done it first and better. When The Citadel beat Arkansas in 1992 it cost Jack Crowe his job. But those Hogs were nothing special, finishing 3-7-1.

When App State beat then-No. 5 Michigan, it marked the first time an FCS team had beaten a ranked FBS opponent. That was made possible when Division I football was subdivided in 1978. The 2007 result caused a sort of reunification. The upset was so significant that the Associated Press changed its policy allowing FCS teams -- essentially all of Division I -- to receive votes in its poll.

It was Appalachian State's one shining moment, at least in the national consciousness. It hadn't been the smoothest flight from Ypsilanti, Mich. back home that night. The closest airport to Boone, N.C., is in Johnson City, Tenn. When the nation's biggest story finally landed, all the shaken, stirred and giddy players could think of was to belt out, "Rocky Top."

Home-sweet-home, one state over.

For Michigan, it was like taking a safety pin and punching a hole in the Hindenburg. The deflation was long, slow and painful.

"That day," Lloyd Carr recently said, "we knew there were going to be a lot of really, really hard days ahead of us."

And there were. The result kicked off not only Carr's final season but one of the deepest depressions in Michigan history. Only now are The Victors emerging from that funk to become a national factor again.

"I couldn't believe it," said record-setting quarterback Denard Robinson who watched the game on TV as a high schooler, "When I saw the highlights, I said, 'What just happened?' ... Maybe Michigan took them lightly."

The result reminded us why the college game is the best. It reminded us that when the planets and goalposts align, anything is possible. Just not that often. College football is mostly a closed society that's getting more exclusive. With Big East realignment, the number of power conference teams is now generally considered to be about 60 (Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten), less than half of FBS.

This kind of game is barely possible in the pros. The talent difference between those 32 NFL teams is like judging between a green banana and slightly ripe one. Upsets? Not really. Not when a 9-7 team can win a championship.

But on that day five years ago a highly evolved life form lost to a single-celled animal.

At least that's the way it seemed.

"This is one of the questions I get asked a lot," said Moore, starting his 24th year at the school. "What's better, winning the national championship or beating Michigan? You play to win the championship but you can't forget what a great day that was at Michigan. You almost have to have been at Michigan. They've won more games than [anyone] in the history of college football."

That's what everyone forgets. App State won its third consecutive FCS national championship that year. It should have given Michigan a game. Just not enough of one to be leading by two touchdowns late in the second quarter or score 34 points against a Big Ten defense.

Five years later, though, what's really changed about college football? Appalachian State is still competing for those national championships. Michigan is getting back to being Michigan, coming off an 11-win season and opening this season against defending national champion Alabama. A playoff is upon us, one that looks suspiciously like the exclusionary BCS. Boise State is practically part of the establishment.

The Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC all play nine conference games or are headed that way. The SEC could be next. What's the incentive for schools from those leagues to play an FCS powers in the future? Say goodbye, then, to not only the ultimate upset but the possibility of the ultimate upset.

The Day College Football Changed, perhaps it didn't.

It will be highly unlikely that a school like Appalachian State will profit from one game that is tied directly to a 17 percent increase in applicants, a 24 percent boost in attendance and a 73 percent goose in licensing royalties.

"I had to do the admission speech for an open house two weeks after the game," said Mountaineers play-by-play voice David Jackson. "The place held 200 people. I swear there were 500 people in there. All they wanted to hear was, 'Tell us what it was like.' In recruiting pitches, it's going to come up forever.

"Seldom does a campus have an opportunity they'll never be able to live down."

What's left of that day, besides the memories, are the people. Carr just turned 67. Grandchild No. 11 Thomas Lloyd Carr is now in kindergarten. Thomas was born five years ago that week of the great Michigan depression, a bright and lasting light.

Those 2007 Wolverines actually started 0-2, suffering a 32-point loss to Oregon a week later. When it seemed like it couldn't get any worse, it did. At that point they had lost four straight since Bo Schembechler's death, giving up 147 points in the process.

Michigan then won eight in a row before losing to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Talk about up-and-down. In the same season, it lost to the FCS national champions, it beat the FBS defending national champs (Florida in the Capital One Bowl.)

The team that was humiliated on the fledgling Big Ten Network that day also produced the 2008 NFL Draft's top pick, offensive tackle Jake Long.

"The agony and the ecstasy," Carr called it. "We experienced a little bit of all that, that year."

Meanwhile, a story was being written that summer in the Blue Ridge Mountains. App State is home of one of the most charming spots in college football. The isolation of Boone helped. Coming off consecutive FCS championships, Moore saw something beyond a $400,000 guarantee from Michigan to start the season.

It was hot that summer in Boone. If nothing else, the Mountaineers would be in shape. Edwards was that ultimate dual-threat -- Denard Robinson two years before Michigan's current quarterback ever set foot on campus. Seven players from the '07 team eventually would be drafted over the next five seasons, ending a seven-year draft drought for the program. Another three from 2007 got into NFL camps.

Michigan had six drafted that from that season.

So what happened? The Mountaineers were surprisingly athletic. A sprinter/receiver named Dexter Jackson made the cover of Sports Illustrated after scoring twice. The Mountaineers blocked two kicks, both in the final two minutes. Brian Quick dropped a touchdown pass that would have put his team ahead 35-20 in the third quarter. Then he clutched up to block Jason Gingell's kick with 97 ticks left to set up the winning drive.

Later, safety Corey Lynch blocked Gingell's kick with six seconds left to clinch it.

To add one final slice of irony, the lasting image is Gingell running down Lynch, a current NFL linebacker, as time ran out. Watching somewhere was Lynch's wife, Cissie, the granddaughter of Billy Graham. Did God care who won that day?

"I don't know, but I think He cares about the character built in every one of us," said Nic Cardwell, a tight end on that team who currently coaches the same position for the Mountaineers.

They did have character. As a no-count walk-on, Cardwell had started a tradition that remains today. He had started quoting from the Bible before games in the locker room -- second book of Samuel.

How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Cardwell comes from tiny Kernersville, N.C., -- "K-Vegas" he calls it -- the son of a repairman father. If not for divine intervention of some sort Cardwell said, "my hind end would be at home fixing welding machines." His first semester ended with a 1.77 GPA. Dan Cardwell reminded his son that all that tuition money wasn't going to continue for a kid who produced a sub-2.00 grade-point average.

Nic buckled down, got the grades, then got the scholarship. There's a picture somewhere of him in the football complex jumping up and down having blocked for Julian Rauch's winning field goal at the Big House.

"At the end of the game it was surreal because we just beat Michigan," Cardwell said. "Five years later I still feel it."

Talk about up and down. The team that made history on opening day, also lost to Georgia Southern and Wofford on its way to that FCS championship. Quick was lost for the season the next week against Lenoir-Rhyne. Last season, he was one of two players on the roster left from the 2007 team. The St. Louis Rams made him the highest draft pick (second round, No. 33 overall) in school history.

So what happened? Appalachian State refused to play the Washington Generals that day. Michigan underestimated a supremely talented and motivated squad.

"It's not a money game," Moore told school officials that summer. "It's an opportunity game. It will be a one shot, once in a lifetime to go up there and play."

Once in a lifetime. Carr won't forget because he can't.

"I've always tried to accept responsibility for that game," he said.

The day after the game, Carr called Moore. He didn't have to, he wanted to. The crush after the game kept the two coaches from a proper postgame meeting. The Mountaineers coaches were in the middle of the staff meeting. Moore stopped everything to accept congratulations from Michigan's coach.

"I'm sure," Moore said, "it was very hard."

Already Moore had heard from Tom Osborne, Hayden Fry, Ken Hatfield, Urban Meyer -- friends, guys he had worked with. The man on the other end of the line was at the end of the career that included five Big Ten championships and a national championship. In that moment, perhaps only they could realize that they were equals.

One man used 27 players. The other was completing his 27th -- and final -- full season at Michigan.

Five years later, take a picture. The game is largely unchanged from The Day That Changed College Football. Appalachian State continues to rule FBS. Michigan is getting close to reclaiming its spot in that top layer of the sport.

The coaches? Well, they both kept their dignity. Maybe that's what matters most.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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