Every Friday, the Friday Five will rank something in the world of college football -- anything and everything from the logical to the illogical. This week, we rank the five biggest Cinderella stories in college football.
The NCAA tournament has always been one of my favorite annual sporting events. While I don’t enjoy college basketball nearly as much as I do college football, when the tournament comes along -- like everybody else -- I morph into my couch, taking in as much college basketball as possible.
What’s not to like?
There’s game after game, and plenty of drama to keep your interest. There are also the Cinderella stories that seemingly come along every year. That double-digit seed that destroys your bracket, surprising everyone as it makes a deeper run into the tournament than could have been expected. It’s the kind of story we don’t see nearly as often in college football for a few reasons.
The biggest, obviously, is that college football doesn’t have a 68-team tournament that would allow an underdog to make a playoff run. But just because there isn’t a tournament doesn’t mean college football doesn’t have its own Cinderella stories.
College football’s Cinderella stories just look a little different. They can be teams with low expectations entering a season having a magical year and either winning their conference or sometimes, a national title. Hell, a college football Cinderella story can just be a single game. An enormous upset that nobody could have foreseen.
So with the NCAA Tournament going on, this week’s Friday Five takes a look at the greatest Cinderella stories in college football history. Admittedly, the list skews a bit more toward recent history because I’m not nearly as old as I look.
We’ll start with a team that played long before I was born, however.
5. 1959 Syracuse national title: When it comes to Syracuse sports history, we tend to think of two things: its basketball success, and all those Syracuse grads in the media talking about Syracuse’s basketball success. When it comes to football, we tend to think of the great Jim Brown, but Syracuse’s greatest football success came after Brown was already in the NFL.
As the 1959 college football season began, there weren’t many people thinking about Syracuse, and that’s because they didn’t have much reason to. Ben Schwartzwalder took over in 1949 and coached Jim Brown, but while Cuse had some good seasons, they never won more than eight games in any of them and hadn’t won a bowl game. Then 1959 came around and Ernie Davis and the Orange caught everybody off-guard. They opened the season with a win against Kansas and then went on to beat teams like Navy, Pitt, Penn State and UCLA. At the end of the regular season, they were 10-0 and headed to the Cotton Bowl to take on a 9-1 Texas team that was ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.
Essentially Syracuse was playing a road game against Texas, but Ernie Davis caught an 87-yard touchdown pass just over a minute into the game, and Syracuse never looked back, going on to win 23-14 and claim the national title. It was Syracuse’s first national title in football and remains the only one in school history. Schwartzwelder would remain at Syracuse through the 1973 season, but his teams would never win more than eight games in any season again.
4. Boise State’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma: The game that created a mid-major powerhouse in college football. While people are familiar with Boise State now, at the time they were a program that had barely been on the FBS level for a decade. They played in the WAC, and when they went to bowl games, it was typically the Humanitarian Bowl, or the vaunted MPC Computers Bowl.
Now the Broncos were suddenly taking on Oklahoma in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, thanks to the BCS. They were undefeated and only 7.5-point underdogs, but nobody really gave the Broncos much of a chance to win the game.
Then the game began, and it was one of the most memorable college football games in history. Chris Petersen’s team brought out some tricks along the way and ended up stunning Oklahoma with a 43-42 win in overtime.
It was such a Cinderella story that it actually ended with Boise State running back Ian Johnson proposing to his girlfriend -- a Boise State cheerleader -- on the field right after the game. The proposal was even televised. She said yes, because what kind of Cinderella story would end with a no?
3. Northwestern’s 1996 Rose Bowl: There’s some excellent timing with this story, as Northwestern’s basketball team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history this season. As remarkable a story as it is, it probably wouldn’t be possible if not for Northwestern’s 1995 Rose Bowl team.
Northwestern was very bad at sports for a very long time, and there was a reason behind it. Northwestern just didn’t care about sports. It considered itself a strong academic institution, and that’s all it endeavored to be. But then 1994 came, and Northwestern’s football team had a magical season.
Again, it’s important to remember how horrible Northwestern was at football. We’re talking winless seasons and a 34-game losing streak here. It was awful. Gary Barnett took over in 1992, and in his first three seasons, Northwestern went 8-24-1.
Then, out of nowhere, Northwestern opened the 1995 season with a 17-15 win over No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend. The following week it would lose to Miami (Ohio), causing everybody to think the previous week was a fluke, but they were wrong. That was the last time Northwestern would lose in the regular season. It would go 8-0 in Big Ten play, including a road win over No. 7 Michigan and home wins against No. 24 Wisconsin and No. 12 Penn State.
Northwestern would then go to the Rose Bowl, which was not only its first Rose Bowl appearance since 1948, but it’s first bowl game of any kind. Northwestern would lose to USC 41-32, but the result didn’t matter much. Northwestern had actually won the Big Ten and the attention the school received helped change some minds in suburban Evanston. It was that team that helped Northwestern start taking sports seriously, and now 20 years later, we’re seeing the results.
2. Appalachian State wins in The Big House: Without a doubt, the most mind-boggling result in college football history. It was Sept. 1, 2007, and Michigan was opening its season ranked No. 5 in the country. The 2006 Michigan team had gone 11-2 and was fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance -- though it was only because Ohio State was playing for the BCS title.
This was also the first game broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Anybody tuning in was either a Michigan fan or just somebody that wanted to see what the new network was like. Nobody expected to have to pay attention for very long.
But Appalachian State had other ideas. It hung around in the first quarter and then exploded for 21 points in the second quarter, taking a 28-17 lead with it into the locker room at halftime. I remember thinking to myself that it was hilarious, and I was definitely mocking friends who were also Michigan fans, but I figured that Michigan would come out and squash this insurrection in the second half.
While Appalachian State’s offense was stifled in the second half, its defense stood tall and did everything in its power to hold the lead. It could only do so for so long, however, as Mike Hart’s 54-yard touchdown run would give Michigan a 32-31 lead with 4:36 to play. And that’s when I thought it was finally over. It was fun to dream about, but Michigan was going to escape with a narrow win and move on.
Michigan went for two following the score but did not convert. Unfortunately for Appalachian State, it turned the ball over on its very first play of the ensuing drive. Now it was definitely over.
Michigan’s offense couldn’t do much after the turnover, but it was in position for a 43-yard field goal that would make it a four-point lead. Appalachian State blocked the kick and got the ball back with 1:37 left and no timeouts. That was when a Mountaineer team that had barely moved the ball in the second half suddenly went 69 yards to set up a 24-yard field goal with 26 seconds left.
Surely Appalachian State would miss the kick and Michigan would escape!
Julian Rauch’s kick sailed through the uprights and Appalachian State pulled off the greatest upset in college football history.
1. BYU’s 1984 National Title: I strongly considered putting Appalachian State at No. 1 on this list ahead of BYU’s 1984 national title, but in the end, I had to go with the Cougars. Maybe you disagree, but let me explain my reasoning with this selection.
It’s not just that BYU was unranked before the season began. It’s not just because it opened the season with a road win over No. 3 Pitt or finished it with a win over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, finishing the season 13-0.
It’s mostly where BYU played: in the WAC. The WAC doesn’t exist anymore, but that’s not the key. It’s that the WAC was not what we call today one of the Power Five conferences. Take a look at the history of college football’s national champions. You generally see powerhouse programs. Some were Independents, others were service academies, but by and large, you don’t see teams from conferences like the WAC winning national titles. The closest thing you see are old teams from the SWC winning titles, but that includes Texas, and most of the SWC became the Big 12 or went to the SEC.
Since BYU won the national title in 1984, do you know how many teams from outside one of today’s Power Five conferences have won it? Three, but do you know who those three schools were? They were Penn State (1986), Miami (1987) and Notre Dame (1988), all of which were Independents. Of those three only Miami’s 1987 national title could be considered its own Cinderella Story (in fact, it almost made this list).
BYU was college football’s last mid-major (or as we now call it, the Group of Five) champion, and given the current construct of the four-team playoff, odds are good we won’t see it ever again.
If that’s not the definition of a Cinderella story, I don’t know what is.