Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Biggest Upsets (at the time)

Our bowl previews are over but football season isn't over yet, so I've decided to pass the time posting some random trivia items I've run across digging through the numbers. The most improbable, the most shocking, and the most out-of-the-ordinary are the subject of this series. These questions will span the 2003-2004 to 2010-2011 seasons, and will exclude August and September games. Each year the computer needs a few weeks to really settle in and understand the teams for that year before it can make reasonably accurate predictions. So if you finish any of these articles and say, "What about when Upper Whargabl State upset Eastern Directional State in September of 2004?" then you'll know why it was left out.

With that we'll kick off this trivia bender with a simple question: what have been the five biggest upsets of the last eight years? In this case "upset" is defined as "game in which TFG was very confident in its prediction, but got it wrong". For each game I'll list the:
  • matchup
  • records of each team at the time of the game
  • date of the game
  • predicted score and confidence; and
  • game result.
followed by some background a brief discussion of the game itself. The countdown is after the jump.

5. Tulane Green Wave (1-2, 0-1 C-USA) at Rutgers Scarlet Knights (2-1, 0-0 Big East); October 2, 2010
TFG Prediction: Rutgers 40, Tulane 22 (94.4% confidence)
Result: Tulane 17, Rutgers 13

We start with a game from earlier this year. Rutgers was coming off a 9-4 season and a 45-24 bowl victory over Central Florida, and had gotten a good start to 2010 by defeating Florida International and losing a close one to a good UNC team. Tulane had defeated Southeastern Louisiana (an FCS team, so this game didn't happen as far as TFG knew) and lost to Mississippi and Houston. With these data points in mind, TFG was extremely confident that host team Rutgers would comfortably defeat a Tulane team with one FBS victory over the last 52 weeks. Tulane didn't so much win this one as the Scarlet Knights gave it away, as Rutgers outgained Tulane 353-245, but tallied 75 yards' worth of penalties and a crucial interception in the closing minute.

4. Florida Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC) at Mississippi State Bulldogs (1-5, 0-3 SEC); October 23, 2004
TFG Prediction: Florida 40, Mississippi State 23 (94.5% confidence)
Result: Mississippi State 38, Florida 31

Florida was a heavy 24-point favorite in this one, but never lead and surrendered 22.9 PPH in allowing the Bulldogs to defeat the then-19th-ranked Gators. This stood out as Florida's only loss to an unranked team that year, and was the Bulldogs' next-to-last victory of the year (one of only three). The Gators would win 3 of their next 4, climb back to 19th in the polls, and then lose to Miami in the Peach Bowl. Florida coach Ron Zook was fired after this loss, but was allowed to coach for the rest of the season.

3. Ball State Cardinals (1-6, 1-3 MAC) at Northern Illinois Huskies (4-3, 3-1 MAC); October 29, 2005
TFG Prediction: Northern Illinois 47, Ball State 26 (95.4% confidence)
Result: Ball State 31, Northern Illinois 17

Northern Illinois was headed for a 7-4 season, bowl eligibility, and the MAC Championship game. Northern Illinois would end up losing to Akron in that game after surrendering a 24-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, and giving up the game-winning touchdown on a 36-yard pass with ten seconds left in the game. The Cardinals would finish up 4-7 after defeating Akron at home and Eastern Michigan by a single point on the road. Prior to the Northern Illinois game, though, Ball State had lost six games by an average of 33 points and had only eeked out a 3-point victory at Western Michigan in quadruple OT. Given the season to date, TFG was nearly certain that the Huskies would win at home by three touchdowns. Instead, the Cardinals visited Northern Illinois, never trailed, and pulled off the two-touchdown upset.

1 (tie). Fresno State Bulldogs (1-3, 1-1 WAC) at Utah State Aggies (0-5, 0-1 WAC); October 7, 2006
TFG Prediction: Fresno State 41, Utah State 22 (96.8% confidence)
Result: Utah State 13, Fresno State 12

I'm sure you're either scratching your head or rolling your eyes as to how the hell one basement-dwelling WAC team defeating another basement-dwelling WAC team could be considered (quite literally) the "Upset of the Decade". The short answer is not that Fresno State was that good, but Utah State was that bad. The Aggies had gone 3-8 in 2005 and had only defeated perennial basement-dweller New Mexico State by a field goal in the previous 52 weeks. The Aggies were averaging a mere 5.6 points per game to kick off 2006, a feat they accomplished by scoring a mere 4 TDs combined all year. On the other hand, the Bulldogs had gone 8-5 the previous year and lost a close one in the Liberty Bowl. The Bulldogs had played a much tougher schedule and had lost close ones to Oregon and Washington, the latter on a blocked extra point by a third-string lineman. Fresno State's record was significantly worse than the team actually was, and Utah State's record didn't fully convey just how bad they were. So when a Fresno State team that (with a few right bounces) easily could be 3-1 with wins over Oregon and Washington visits an 0-5 Utah State team as 27 point favorites and loses ... well, that's something to remember.

1 (tie). Stanford Cardinal (1-3, 0-3 Pac-10) at USC Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-10); October 6, 2007
TFG Prediction: USC 41, Stanford 20 (96.8% confidence)
Result: Stanford 24, USC 23

I'm guessing football fans are more familiar with this one. USC had a total of six losses over the last six years, was two years removed from the national title game, had finished the previous year 11-2 (with those two losses by a combined 6 points), and was off to another 4-0 start. Stanford was 45 minutes away from a winless season in 2006, had only managed a win against a hapless San Jose State team, and seven days earlier had lost by 38 to Arizona State. The USC game started out on a similar note, with the Cardinal being forced to punt on their first eight drives (yes, eight). Thanks to a blocked extra point and a pick-six, though, Stanford was only trailing 16-7 at the start of the 4th quarter. Stanford engineered an excellent drive spanning the 3rd and 4th quarters to bring them within two, but USC responded and went up 23-14 with eleven minutes to go. Stanford got a quick field goal, then intercepted a horrible USC pass to get the ball back. The Cardinal drove down the field -- picking up a 4th and 20 along the way -- and squeezed in a game-winning touchdown on a 4th and 10 with 0:49 to go. USC QB John David Booty then tossed another interception on a 4th and 16 with 0:13 left, putting the final touches on this most improbable of upsets.