In the land of giants
It's the Year of the Upset -- so who's the next to fall?
Posted: Thursday October 11, 2007 8:09PM; Updated: Friday October 12, 2007 9:47AM
Who'll it be this weekend? Which fat and happy and favorite will be the latest victim in this, the Year of the Upset? Which are the fans whose face paint will be streaked with tears? (I personally suspect No. 1 LSU is walking into a trap at Kentucky.)
Who among us is not stirred by an upset? (Put your hands down, Lloyd Carr, Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll. We weren't talking to you.)
Upsets remind us of the richness of life's possibilities; that the race is not always to the swift, as it says in Ecclesiastes, nor the battle to the strong. As Colorado coach Dan Hawkins put it to me earlier this week, "Life wants to convince us that it's always the bigger, stronger, faster guy [who wins]. I tell our players, 'You know that within our team, there are some guys with superior athletic ability. But you also know, 'cause you've been around 'em for awhile, that because you're more disciplined, you're tougher, you have more desire -- you can take 'em!"
Underdogs have been knocking off favorites in unprecedented numbers in '07, which helps explain why this week's AP poll appears to have been composed by the late Timothy Leary. It is a brave new world of arrivistes (No. 5 South Florida, No. 15 Cincinnati) and Rip Van Winkles -- long dormant programs who've not breathed this rarefied air in years, if not decades (No. 4 Boston College, No. 7 South Carolina, No. 11 Missouri).
There's no great mystery behind the rash of giant-slayings. As Mack Brown told me a few weeks ago, when his Longhorns were still undefeated, "We've been talking about parity for a long time" -- since 1994, in fact, when the NCAA cut scholarship limits to 85, preventing football factories from Bogarting all the talent. "And it's finally here."
Further "democratizing the region" (to borrow a phrase until recently popular among neo-cons) is the spread offense, which allows teams rich in fleet skill guys to do just that: spread the field. If the favored team has a single weak link -- a plodding linebacker, a gimpy corner -- that liability can be exploited.
There are better coaches, at more levels, than ever before. In addition to everything else that went wrong for Michigan on Sept. 1, the day Appalachian State came calling, the Wolverines were outcoached. A few hours after the Mountaineers KO'd the No. 5 team in the country, Appy State quarterbacks coach Scott Satterfield struggled to keep the gratitude out of his voice as he discussed Michigan's defense. "They brought two safeties down, one on the right slot receiver, one on the left." When those receivers cleared out, "it left the middle wide open." Next thing you know, Mountaineers quarterback Armanti Edwards was completing 17 of 23 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns (and rushing for another) in a 34-32 shocker.
Outrageous as that result was, I must insist that, in the continuum of this season's colossal upsets, Stanford's toppling of USC last Saturday takes the prize, and not just because the visitors were 41-point dogs going into the Coliseum. (Syracuse's three-point win over 36-point favorite Louisville two weeks earlier was as much a defrocking as an upset: the Orange exposed the Cardinals as an overrated team with incurable defensive issues.)