No Such Thing As An Upset Anymore: Why Last Year Was No Fluke

Frank AhrensSenior Writer ISeptember 15, 2008

The University of Southern Cal is by far and away the best team in college football.

No other team has the skill and speed to stay on the field with the Trojans. Their 35-3 demolition of Ohio State proved that.

We actually learned all we needed to know about USC’s strength by their 52-7 blowout of Virginia in the season’s opening week.

Except we didn’t. Because last weekend, Virginia lost another game by a comparable score, 45-10, to the unquestionably mighty...University of Connecticut.

Okay, well, South Carolina must be terrific, too, given that the Gamecocks lost to No. 3 Georgia 14-7 and nearly tied the game twice in the fourth quarter, right?

Maybe...except for the fact that the Gamecocks lost the prior week, 24-17, to unranked Vanderbilt.

That same weekend, unranked Ohio University led then-No. 3 Ohio State until the fourth quarter when the Buckeyes pulled out an ugly 26-14 victory.

Fast-forward to this past weekend: No. 10 Auburn beats unranked Mississippi State in an unwatchable game, 3-2.

East Carolina, which opened the season by beating two ranked opponents (Virginia Tech and West Virginia), struggles to pull out a fourth-quarter victory over unranked C-USA foe Tulane, 28-24.

Elsewhere in the Big East, No. 17 South Florida nearly needed overtime to beat No. 13 Kansas, 37-34, last Friday. No sin there. But the prior week, the Bulls did require overtime to beat unranked Central Florida, 31-24.

So far, this season is shaping up like 2007 only without the shocking upsets so far. What we have seen, however, are competitive games up and down the rankings—the results of parity.

Change usually happens the way this is shaking out: Increasingly close scores between teams that are perceived to have wildly divergent levels of talent.

Last year was the shock-to-the-system statistical aberration, week after week of upsets—so many that the word ceased becoming meaningful. But those statistical anomalies occur from time to time for a reason no one can figure out.

So what we’re seeing this season, and what we’ll continue to see more and more of, is the sort of parity that, I hope, will put an end to preseason polls (doubtful), and postponing regular season polls until teams have played at least three games.

A number of factors contribute to this parity: Each Division I school has been limited to 85 scholarships since 1994. During that same time, we’ve seen the rise of Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night football on the ESPN family of networks, meaning more exposure for more teams. This means that high school kids for the first time see Bowling Green State on TV, and given a choice between starting at BGSU or sitting on the bench at Nebraska or LSU—now they have an option.

Further, more kids are playing football now than before, increasing the talent pool. Schools that were too small to play 11-man football now play in 8-on-8 leagues, and colleges are recruiting them.

WVU has played East Carolina for years; it has usually been an early-season warm-up game, a sure victory as the Mountaineers prepped for Big East play.

No more. Next year, ECU will lose its senior quarterback, who carved up WVU. But the Pirates will no longer be a gimme on the Mountaineers’s schedule.

And forget about Southern Cal—Ohio State may think twice about playing Ohio University again.