Ouch! The Most Painful College Football Upset Losses of the Last 50 Years

John CateCorrespondent IJanuary 16, 2009

On any given day…

Sometimes college football fans, especially those of powerhouse teams, dismiss those words. Yes, your favorite team’s coach may talk up a "guarantee game" opponent like they’re dangerous, but we all know Central Florida isn’t Florida, and Western Michigan isn’t Michigan, and Louisiana-Monroe isn’t LSU…well, just don’t tell that last one to Nick Saban.

Upsets in games like that happen every year. But usually, there are extenuating circumstances. ULM beat Alabama last year, but the Crimson Tide was in a transition year and trying to rebuild their program from the ground up.

Wyoming beat Tennessee this year, but that was the worst Tennessee team in 20 years, a few days removed from its coach’s resignation.

Appalachian State beat Michigan a year ago, but Michigan was overrated, and Appalachian fielded one of the best 1-AA/FCS teams of all time.

You might say those are all just excuses, but they’re at least legitimate. Have you ever been a fan of a team that lost a game that was such a mismatch, you wouldn’t believe your team had lost if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes? A game that made you want to demand seppuku from the coach?

The next time your team loses a bowl game to some team you’ve never heard of, or chokes in a national championship game, just remember it could be worse. You could have been a fan of one of these seven teams…and for those of you who were, at least the sun still came up on Sunday morning:

1961: OK, I admit this happened a dozen years before I was born, but it clearly cost a team a national championship. On the morning of November 18, 1961, the Texas Longhorns were 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation, winning by an average score of 33-7. That afternoon, they clashed with a weak TCU team, 2-4-1 and having scored just 63 points all season.

Final score: TCU 6, Texas 0. The Horns came back strong, routing Texas A&M and then whipping No. 5 Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl to finish 10-1. But Darrell Royal had to wait two more years for his first national championship.

1981: Some people say Bear Bryant is the greatest college football coach of all time. But on September 12, 1981, Bear probably didn’t think so himself. No. 2 ‘Bama came in 1-0, having blown out a good LSU team 24-7 in its opener, and was gunning for its third national title in four years. On that day, a Georgia Tech team that didn’t win another game all year beat the Tide 24-21 in Birmingham.

Alabama didn’t lose again in the regular season, and the loss probably cost it a shot at the national championship. Perhaps even worse, the Tech coach was Bill Curry. The upset stuck in the minds of some Alabama administrators so much that they hired Curry to coach the Tide in 1987. He won 26 games and an SEC title in three years, but was always a poor fit in Tuscaloosa.

Georgia Tech nearly made the list twice in this era. The year before, a Tech team nearly as bad (1-9-1) managed a 3-3 tie with Notre Dame when the Irish were ranked No. 1 in the country.

1984: If you ever want to see a South Carolina fan cringe, bring this one up. On November 17, 1984, the Gamecocks were 9-0 and, thanks to upsets earlier in the day, poised to become the No. 1-ranked team in the nation for the first time in school history. All they had to do was beat Navy, which was 3-5-1 and coming off a 29-0 loss to Syracuse.

The Middies stunned the nation with a 38-21 upset. South Carolina, which had already beaten Georgia, Notre Dame and Florida State that season and was seemingly on the verge of becoming a national power, never got there.

1985: Another side effect of Navy’s upset was that it helped Brigham Young win the 1984 national championship, one of the most controversial votes in college football history. The next fall, on October 26, 1985, the defending champs were 6-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation, with their only loss coming by three points to eventual PAC-10 champ UCLA.

Quarterback Robbie Bosco was a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. But on that day, BYU lost 23-16 at Texas-El Paso, which was 0-6 coming in (coming off a 51-24 loss to Kent State) and would not win another game in 1985. Needless to say, Bosco didn’t win the Heisman, and BYU lost all credibility as a top-notch program for several years.

1992: No one seems to remember this one, or at least no one outside of Nebraska, where it still stings. The seventh-ranked Cornhuskers were 7-1 and headed to the Orange Bowl. Their only loss was in the second week of the regular season, when they fell 29-14 to defending national champion Washington in Seattle. A month later, on a roll, they routed No. 8 Colorado 52-7, and followed that up with a 49-7 plastering of Kansas.

Then came November 14, 1992, and a seemingly innocuous road trip to play a weak Iowa State team. How weak? Iowa State had lost by 17 points to Division 1-AA Northern Iowa earlier that season. The Cyclones won, 19-10—proof that Tom Osborne, like Bear Bryant, could have a really bad day at the office.

1996: The Rocky Top Flop. The Memphis Tigers of 1996 had one of the nation’s best pass defenses. The Tennessee Vols had one of the nation’s worst rushing attacks. When they clashed on November 9, 1996, the Vols were 6-1, ranked No. 6 and ticketed for a slot in the Bowl Coalition. Memphis was 3-6, with an offense so bad they couldn’t beat the likes of Louisiana-Lafayette.

But the Vols came out flatter than an empty pita, Memphis generated some points with a kickoff return for a touchdown, and even Peyton Manning couldn’t save the day. Memphis won 21-17 and Manning had to settle for his second straight trip to the Citrus Bowl.

Three years later, the Tigers almost did it again, but Tennessee won 17-16 on a last-gasp touchdown pass.

2007: No, it’s not the one you’re probably thinking of. Appalachian State beating Michigan was significant in a historical sense, but the Mountaineers were by no means a bad team. Put the ’07 Appalachian team in a lower-tier FBS conference and they would have won it.

No, the real stunner of the 2007 season came about six weeks later, on October 6, 2007. That evening, No. 2 USC was 4-0 and playing host to Pac-10 rival Stanford, losers of three of its first four games. The Cardinal’s lone victory was over San Jose State, and they had lost to three conference rivals by an average of 30 points.

But on this day, none of that mattered. The Trojans led by nine going to the fourth quarter, but Stanford scored 17 points down the stretch, driving for the winning score with just 49 seconds remaining. The Cardinal’s 24-23 win snapped a 35-game home winning streak for USC, which went on to finish 11-2 and ranked No. 3 in the country; the loss may well have cost the Trojans the national championship.

Meanwhile, Stanford won just two more games before the season ended, and wound up 4-8 for the year, the school’s sixth straight losing season.