Breaking Down the Anatomy of a College Football Upset

Tim DanielsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2012

AMES, IA - NOVEMBER 18:  Iowa State Cyclones fans rush the field after an upset win against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Jack Trice Stadium November 18, 2011 in Ames, Iowa.  (Photo by Reese Strickland/Getty Images)
Reese Strickland/Getty Images

The first week of the college football season didn't have any shocking upsets, as most elite teams opted to play opponents without enough talent to pull one off. History says they are on the way, however.

Major upsets make college football special. In the NFL, the high level of parity means there are only a couple scenarios in which the result of a game would be truly stunning. At the collegiate level, there are dozens of games every week where that could be the case.

The most important factor in any upset is having a moment early in the game that gives the underdog confidence that they can hang with the favorite. Something has to happen so it feels like a level playing field instead of a lopsided one.

In most cases, a big favorite scores the first touchdown, gets a defensive stop and proceeds to score again right away. Before the opponent has a chance to blink, the score is already 14-0, and for all practical purposes, the game is already over.

After all, the underdog wasn't even expected to keep the game close in the first place. The chances they are able to outscore a more talented team by 15 from that point forward are basically nonexistent. They need something to happen before that to give them hope.

For example, when Appalachian State, an FCS team, shocked Michigan five years ago, the seeds were planted long before a blocked field-goal attempt in the dying moments.

Michigan drove the ball right down the field on the opening drive, covering 67 yards on six plays and scoring a touchdown. It was quickly 7-0, and most fans probably though the game was over at that point.

Instead, the Mountaineers answered right back. Armanti Edwards found Dexter Jackson for a 68-yard touchdown on the team's third play from scrimmage, and it proved a tremendous boost of energy to the entire team.

Appalachian State got a three-and-out on the next defensive drive, and the rest is history. It was one of the biggest upsets college football has ever witnessed.

Another key part of every upset is the underdog sticking to its usual game plan. Far too often, teams will change their style of play, hoping it will give them a better chance of remaining within striking distance. It usually has the opposite effect.

If a team has a high-powered offense that relies on airing it out early and often, it shouldn't try to suddenly utilize a ground-and-pound attack to waste time. It's not going to fool the opponent, and it limits the underdog's scoring potential.

The same goes for a team with a strong defense. If the unit relies on a lot of blitzes to pressure the quarterback, it can't sit back just because the coaching staff is afraid of giving up a couple big plays to a team that will probably get them anyway.

It's what Boise State did so well before it became a perennial BCS threat. When the Broncos went up against a big-name team, they weren't afraid to keep attacking, and it really seemed to catch the opponents off-guard that a perceived underdog was willing to do that.

Tentative teams are always going to get exposed. For an upset to occur, the underdog must be willing to take the same chances they would if they were playing an evenly-matched foe.

But perhaps the most underrated facet of a college football upset is more simple: forcing turnovers. Nothing changes the course and momentum of a game more than a turnover, especially if it results in points for the underdog.

It's a basic part of every football game, but the impact of a turnover is never greater than when an underdog is trying to pull off an upset. The plays basically serve as the great equalizer when there's a gap in talent level.

When Iowa State upended national title hopeful Oklahoma State in double overtime last season, the Cyclones forced five turnovers. Without those big plays, they'd probably lose the game by a couple scores, but instead they shook up the championship race.

The biggest one of them all came in double overtime, when Ter'Ran Benton intercepted a pass from former Cowboys and new Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. The Cyclones completed the upset moments later.

Every upset is unique, of course. Different plays happen along the way to make each possible, but most of them have the same basic structure: confidence-building moments, unchanged game plans and turnovers.

Keep an eye out for those factors in Week 2 and the rest of the college football season. Upsets are surely on the horizon.