The college football world remains in shock, following Appalachian State's upset of mighty Michigan in Ann Arbor over the weekend 34-32. After all, we're talking about a team that was ranked number five in the nation before the game, a Michigan squad that was supposed to contend for the national championship. A Wolverine team loaded with seniors who took a pass on the NFL for an almost-guaranteed shot at the BCS.
And they were playing at home, before 110,000 in the Big House, against a team that competes at the 1-AA level (or what used to be the 1-AA level, until the NCAA decided to give that division a thoroughly incomprehensible title). Appalachian State was supposed to show up, give Big Blue a contest for a couple of quarters, then roll over and let Michigan roll up the stats. In exchange, the Mountaineers would collect a $400,000 check, as the designated opening day "patsy" in Ann Arbor.
But App State never got the memo. Or perhaps Michigan's athletic director and their head football coach, Lloyd Carr, didn't get the memo before adding Appalachian State to their 2007 schedule. Yes, Appalachian State is a I-AA school, but they've won back-to-back titles in their classification. They returned quality players at the skill positions, and the Mountaineers run the spread offense, maximizing the talents of their mobile quarterback, Armanti Edwards, and a speedy wide corps.
In other words, App State was a potentially dangerous opponent, but hey, we're talking about Michigan, one of the defining programs in college football. At home--in the Big House, filled with 110,000 screaming fans. No way the Wolverines lose to little Appalachian State. That was the "conventional wisdom" in college football before the Mountaineers rallied to re-take the lead, then blocked two Michigan field goal attempts in the closing minutes, sealing one of the greatest upsets in recent sports history.
But, in hindsight, was the victory really that surprising? Obviously, Michigan was looking ahead to its Big Ten schedule and the post-season. And yes, the Wolverines have vastly superior talent; replay the game, and Michigan wins nine times out of ten. But that doesn't diminish what App State achieved in Ann Arbor. Fact is, mighty Michigan became the first high-profile victim of the sea change in college football. Thanks to the 85-scholarship limit and the spread offense, the gap between the Division I elite and "everyone else" has narrowed.
With the scholarship limit, recruiting and talent evaluation become paramount. The days when Bear Bryant or Darrell Royal could "stockpile" 150 blue-chippers in their programs are long since past. Today, the big schools can't sign a kid like Edwards as a third or fourth-string quarterback, and quite frankly, most would have no interest in carrying the clip board. With pro scouting now an exact science, Edwards can be a star at the I-AA level, and still have a shot at the NFL. Ditto for Mountaineers' wide receiver Dexter Jackson, the fastest player on the field Saturday. Somewhere, the Michigan secondary is still chasing Mr. Jackson, who burned the Wolverines for two touchdowns.
As for the spread, it's the perfect antidote for a team like Michigan which has defensive talent, but lacks experience. Open multiple lanes in the defense, and create opportunities for players like Edwards and Jackson. Admittedly, the spread's success depends on the coaching staff (or the QB) making the right reads on the defensive gaps and calling the right plays, but App State was up to the task. Head Coach Jerry Moore and his staff built the Mountaineers into a I-AA power with an offensive scheme that exploits their quickness. Michigan guard Adam Kraus said last week that the Mountaineers "have more team speed than most Division I teams." Boy, was that apparent on Saturday afternoon.
If its any consolation to the Wolverines, they won't be the last elite program to lose to a I-AA school, or one of the I-A also-rans. On the same day that App State knocked off Michigan, Texas struggled mightily against Arkansas State, escaping with a 21-13 win. Arkansas State normally ranks near the bottom of the 117 or so schools that play Division I college football, but last Saturday in Austin, they came within a whisker of beating the Longhorns. No one will ever accuse Arkansas State of being a football power, but they had enough talent and savvy to take UT to the wire.
The gap is clearly closing in college football. True, the powerhouses will still win most of the time, but what happened in Ann Arbor on Saturday afternoon will resonate for years to come. Coaches, players and fans still want their "breathers," but there's a realization that some of those teams aren't the patsies they once were. With the talent at the skill positions, the right offensive scheme, a good game plan and a measure of confidence, the little guys can sneak up on the elite of college football. It's enough to make those top-tier coaches worry a bit more, and earn those multi-million dollar paychecks.
If you don't believe us, just ask Lloyd Carr.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported last week that Appalachian State piratically begged Michigan for a game. Obviously, ASU realized that the game would provide a big payday (no small consideration when you play in a 16,000 seat stadium), but after a long history of tight games against I-A opponents--and tremendous success in their own division--you've got to believe that the Mountaineers knew they had a real chance in the Big House.