Well, the first college football Saturday of the season turned out to be much more than anyone could have possibly bargained for. The Illini almost completed a huge comeback against Missouri in St. Louis with redshirt freshman quarterback Eddie McGee doing a more than adequate job stepping in for Juice Williams (who got his bell rung at the very beginning of the game). Of course, that means that if Juice starts seeing his pass completion percentage dip toward his 39.5 percent mark from last year, it won’t be long before there’s another legitimate QB controversy on campus. I’m pretty sure that the old adage that the most popular person in town is the backup quarterback had its genesis in Champaign since, with the exceptions of maybe Jack Trudeau and Jeff George, every Illini quarterback since the Red Grange era has had Rex Grossman-like accuracy with Kyle Orton-like arm strength and Brian Griese-like speed – it would be akin to creating a player on EA Sports NCAA Football and giving him the lowest attribute ratings in every possible category. I still think Juice is still the man the build around since he has incredible athleticism, but McGee showed on Saturday that there’s a viable alternative waiting in the wings.
Despite the 40-34 loss, I was able to enjoy a rare fall Saturday where the Illinois football program looks like a beacon of hope compared to its Midwestern neighbors of Notre Dame and Michigan. The Fighting Irish’s own quarterback controversy in hindsight turned out to be the most ridiculous sports talk show topics in recent memory with the way that they were all pummeled by Georgia Tech in a 33-3 loss (the worst Notre Dame loss in an opener in school history). I’ve been challenging my Irish fan friends over the past couple of years to provide me with concrete evidence that Charlie Weis is any better of a coach than Ty Willingham, since that seems to be the common perception yet the records don’t support that conclusion. So far, I haven’t heard many arguments other than the fuzzy wuzzy “Notre Dame spirit” proclamations from the fact that Weis is an alum, which really doesn’t go into anything as to the quality of his coaching abilities. It will be interesting to see how much the Irish fan base will stay supportive of big Charlie if the team doesn’t make it to any type of bowl this season (when looking at the schedule is more of probability than just a possibility). Something tells me with the way Willingham and Bob Davie were ousted over the past few years, however, it won’t be any prettier this time around.
Of course, it’s impossible not to comment on what I believe is the sports story of the year and what is the biggest upset I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime (I was alive for the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, but was a bit too young to remember watching it as a 2-year old). Well, I actually didn’t witness it since, even though I am one of the five people in the country that has access to the Big Ten Network as a DirecTV subscriber, the household I was at on Saturday had BTN-less Comcast. Just hearing the scoring updates from the game, though, literally made my heart race. Appalachian State beating #5-ranked Michigan in the Big House is beyond anything that I could have possibly imagined happening. On Friday, I picked the Wolverines to actually make it to the national championship game, yet the very next day that get squashed by a Football Championship Subdivision I-AA Division Conference whatever the hell they call it team. (By the way, what is the NCAA’s problem with just sticking with logical names? The NCAA Tournament was neatly divided into the East, South, Midwest, and West Regions until the association decided to name the regions by their sites every year, leading to such flow-off-the-tongue creations like the “East Rutherford Regional”. At least the 2005 region that the Illini came out of was called the Chicago Region as opposed to the geographically correct Rosemont Region, which would have made the average person on the street believe that they determined one of the Final Four at the United terminal at O’Hare. Fortunately, the NCAA went back to the old region names this year. This logic obviously led them to get antsy and move forward with approving the switch from the perfectly logical Division I-A and I-AA distinctions to the Frankenstein they have now.) While this sort of wounded my pride a little bit as a college football prognosticator along with understanding that this would severely damage the perception of the Big Ten conference for this season, you can’t help but love to see such a monster upset, especially at the expense of Michigan (who for my money, is the “Evil Empire” of college football they way that the Yankees are in baseball and Duke is in college basketball).
I try to stay away from the “instant history” shenanigans that people seem to enjoy playing these days, but the Appalachian State shocker is justified. This is bigger than any type of upset that you could ever see in pro sports since I would argue that the talent gap between the best pro team and the worst pro team in any given sport is much smaller than the divide between a BCS superpower at the level of Michigan versus a lower division school. This is especially true when comparing football, which requires depth and size at a multitude of positions that makes it very tough for true upsets to occur, to basketball, where a team that might be shorter on talent can get hot from the three-point line (this is the typical anatomy of an upset in the NCAA Tournament). The Boise State win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl was an upset in terms of perception only – the Broncos were an undefeated top-15 team at the time (if the school’s name were Alabama or Florida State, no one would have ever termed it as an upset). Meanwhile, George Mason was ranked in the polls during the 2006 season prior to its run to the Final Four, so that team that supposedly “came out of nowhere” for most of the American public was actually on the radar of a number of people in the sports establishment.
Division III Chaminade over #1-ranked Virginia in 1982 is often considered the greatest upset in college basketball history, but even that game had exigent circumstances, such as Virginia coming off a trip to Japan and basically playing a game in a layover in Hawaii, not to mention Ralph Sampson just having recovered from a bout of pneumonia. For Michigan, though, there was simply no excuse. This was the first game of the season in front of over 110,000 friendly fans at the Big House with a healthy and fresh starting lineup that plenty of people believed could be playing for the national championship. The Wolverines losing to a team in a lower division, much less a non-BCS school, in the friendly confines of the Big House is simply unfathomable. Honestly, the only comparison that I could make would be if a Single-A minor league ballclub came up and swept a three-game series (not just win one game) against the fully-stocked and rested Yankees team at Yankee Stadium. That’s how incredible Appalachian State’s achievement was on Saturday.
Finally, I’d suggest you check out a time capsule of the feelings of the game at this open game thread from Saturday that was on the always entertaining mgoblog. You can see the close to 1000 comments made during the game from mostly Michigan fans, tracking from the first half where they thought they were just going to have a tougher come-from-behind day to that moment where they knew they were the victims of one of the greatest upsets in the history of modern sports. Let’s just hope Illinois doesn’t take their Subdivision Submarine opponent Western Illinois that’s coming to Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
(Image from Detroit Free Press)