Looking back at the records in any series between two college football teams rarely yields a surprise. Most of the time, the team you’d expect to have usually beaten the other has in fact done so.
But not always, partly due to a trick of sample size. If your program has been around for a while, it’s played something like 100 (or way more) teams in its history — perhaps some of them only three times more than a century ago, for instance. That part is often where the magic happens.
Below is a list of historical lessers who happen to own multi-game bragging rights over some of FBS’ all-time winningest programs. With an exception, I don’t want a series with just one big upset — we all agree Appalachian State University has a satellite campus in Ann Arbor, but that’s just one game — I want a shameful mark on a prestige program’s résumé that would take more than just one more meeting to erase.
Notre Dame 0, Oregon State 2
Like this, for starters. The Irish would have to go really far out of their way for at least three years to assemble a winning record over the Pac-12’s historic dead weight, one of only two power peers against whom Notre Dame has a record of 0-2 or worse (along with Georgia).
It gets better: the Irish lost by 32 to the Beavers in a Phoenix-area bowl game, and four years later lost by 17 to the Beavers in a Phoenix-area bowl game.
The Chad Johnson/T.J. Houshmandzadeh experience was so nonchalant ...
... to East Coast media amazement:
Texas 2, Vanderbilt 7 (plus a tie)
Until the 1930s or so, Vandy was good! In fact, it was one of the Southeast’s first true powers! And Great Plains football took a little while to get rolling! But still.
The best part is that only three of these games were outside of Texas. In the 1920s, the random Vandy-Horn rivalry had six “neutral”-siters in Dallas, where Vanderbilt went 4-2.
Here’s the local paper in 1926, hoping the cerebral underdogs (Texas, eventually the richest program in college sports) can outwit the lumbering bullies (Vanderbilt, which is only in the SEC so everyone else can copy its homework):
Texas 6, Bill Snyder/Ron Prince Kansas State 9
This is one of only a couple on this list that aren’t just historic anomalies yet to be corrected. This happened out in open modernity, in front of camcorders and everything.
Before Snyder took over, K-State was known as nothing other than the worst football program in the power-type conferences (this is commonly exaggerated as “worst in all of Division I” — no, K-State was better than the worst MAC or FCS teams, but not by much). Snyder quickly built it into such a monster that even during his first retirement, doomed semi-replacement Prince took down two top-10 Longhorn teams.
Print the T-shirts! They did.
It gets even funnier! Entering 2019, K-State still held a 10-9 series lead even if you count the pre-Snyder years. As noted, Texas is the richest program in college sports.
Miami 0, Western Kentucky State Teachers College 2
Against teams that have ever been majors, the Canes have very few series in which they’ve never won. Only two are 2-0 or better against Miami: 2010s K-State (which got to pit the wizard Snyder against the used car dealer Al Golden) and the 1930s program that would become WKU.
The Hilltoppers’ dominance over the eventual five-time national champs includes a 19-0 win at Miami in WKU’s first-ever night game and a 20-0 win the following year, when Miami also lost to Alabama’s JV team and multiple JUCOs.
Obviously, this was before either program’s top-level entry (the NCAA considers 1936 Miami’s first year as a major, and WKU wouldn’t join FBS until 2007), but it’s in the books regardless.
Oklahoma 1, academic equal Northwestern 3
In 1959, the #2 Sooners lost to the Wildcats by 32 as OU head coach Bud Wilkinson feared the Chicago mob had poisoned his players for gambling reasons.
The next year, with the Mafia likely unable to penetrate Norman in support of its beloved Wildcats, Wilkinson lost to Northwestern by 16.
The Sooners then spent decades plotting, only to open 1997 with a 24-0 loss in Chicago, surely abetted by noted Northwestern University fan John “No Nose” DiFronzo.
Nebraska 5, academic equal Syracuse 7
Sure, these days, they’re often equals. But Nebraska has more national titles since the ‘80s than Cuse has top-10 finishes since the ‘50s, so come on.
This amusing series record includes 1984, in which the #1 Huskers — fresh off coming one yard shy of Tom Osborne’s first title — lost to a Cuse that would go 6-5. Other than that, many of these weren’t upset wins for Syracuse at the time.
So I was mainly listing this because I was baffled by why Syracuse made eight 1,200-mile trips to Lincoln, Nebraska over the course of 66 years ... until I remembered the wormhole from one Syracuse to another:
Alabama [number of wins not important], mayhem god Southern Miss: general mayhem every few years since 1981
The Tide hold a comfortable series lead, but life is all about moments. Here are four:
- 1981: A tie with a typically volatile Southern Miss — Destroy Bobby Bowden!! Lose to prehistoric Louisville!! — was Bear Bryant’s first blemish against a non-power since a 1967 tie with Florida State, and it might’ve helped keep Bama out of one last Sugar Bowl.
- 1982: Bryant’s last-ever game in Tuscaloosa was also his first loss there since 1963, coming at the chaotic talons of USM, who again paired stuff like beat multiple SEC teams with lose to Louisiana Tech.
- 1990: After Bama’s disastrous Bill Curry experiment ended in the unforgivable shame of winning a piece of the 1989 SEC title, the Tide returned to the Bryant tree. Gene Stallings’ #13 Tide got back to business with a loss to a Southern Miss that, yep, nearly went 4-0 against the SEC but finished 8-4. (Gene would quickly figure it out and win the 1992 title.)
- 2000: Bryant/Stallings understudy Mike DuBose lost 21-0 to Southern Miss, and I’m pretty sure we can consider it Bama’s first shutout loss to a contemporary non-power since at least 1933 Fordham. Did our USM Erratic Eagles also blow out Oklahoma State in Stillwater and then lose three Conference USA games? Of course.
If Southern Miss ever loses to two FCS teams right before rolling into Tuscaloosa, then Bama should just forfeit.
Alabama 0, Rice 3
You think that’s funny, Auburn fans?
Auburn 0, Rice 2
Rice is also 1-0 against Georgia, but there’s a better one:
Georgia 0, Holy Cross 3
The last one was a 13-0 loss on Georgia’s 1939 homecoming. But you know that thing Southern teams do when they play in the cold? When they make a big show of not wearing sleeves or coats, to try and prove they’re unbothered by enemy weather? UGA’s morale was ruined by the reverse:
Imagine the psychological toll of a bunch of Massachusetts Jesuits showing up dressed like this and daring your Southeastern humidity to do its worst:
LSU 0, Rutgers 1
Rutgers football was on shaky financial ground at the end of the 1922 season. Usually the gridiron squad showed a profit of several thousand dollars after the last game. [...] Rutgers relied on the gate receipts from its Polo Grounds game to make ends meet. In 1922 the Polo Grounds contest against Louisiana State was a fan flop. In 1922 the Rutgers football operation had a net profit of only $69.16. Luckily, Rutgers students and alumni donated and collected enough money to keep the football program around for the 1923 season.
Not only does the Power 5’s greatest shame hold all-time scoreboard over LSU, no one cared at the time. People cared so little, it almost ended Rutgers football for good. (So in hindsight, thank you for trying, LSU.)
Florida State 2, Houston 13 (plus two ties)
Not quite as silly as it looks — UH was more like a “power” during some of these games than FSU was, and only one of these meetings involved Bowden — but still plenty silly. And it’s not like it’s all old stuff!
Penn State 23, the Ivy League 47 (plus seven ties)
Based only on years in which the Ivies were considered by the NCAA to be major-level programs, here are Penn State’s records:
- Brown: 0-0
- Columbia: 0-2
- Cornell: 4-7-1
- Dartmouth: 1-2
- Harvard: 0-3-2
- Penn: 18-21-4
- Princeton: 0-5
- Yale: 0-7
The program listed by the NCAA as having major college football’s 10th-best all-time win percentage was a mediocre nobody for about 80 years. Many of those 80 years happened to line up with all the good college football teams living very near Penn State.
And then most of the other years happened to line up with the Ivy League cordoning itself off within a secret cavern inside Division I’s lower level, retreating with all of Penn State’s treasures forever.
Post-2006 USC 6, Stanford 9
USC’s record vs. a lot of fellow powers is really impressive, from 2-0 or better against Clemson, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas A&M to winning records against Auburn, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Penn State, Texas, Wisconsin, and so on.
The Trojans hold the edge against state rival Stanford as well, but “rival” was a stretch for a long time. Stanford had just four top-10 finishes before 2007 — USC had 26.
Then Jim Harbaugh beat Pete Carroll in the biggest point-spread upset ever (at the time), ran the score up in the “what’s your deal” game, and passed the sticks to David Shaw, who’s twice knocked USC out of the top six.
USC 1, USC 1
Most recently, the 1983 Gamecocks defeated the Trojans 38-14.
Michigan 5, USC/USC 9
The Wolverines and Trojans are historic equals, so that’s just a stupid joke that brings us to this ...
... and the time my knucklehead podcast co-host led the Gamecocks to a comeback win in that same venue:
Clemson 0, Centre 3
The Tigers’ worst record against any team is against the early-1920s Colonels of Danville, Kentucky, a horrifying opponent that also pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever: 6-0 over 1921 Harvard.
The Clemson record is only Centre’s second-funniest achievement, however.
Centre also won both of the first two bowl games to ever fold for good. The Colonels won 100% of all Fort Worth Classics, beating TCU in January 1921, and then won 50% of all San Diego East-West Christmas Classics, beating Arizona in December 1921. “Too many bowl games” complainers, Centre is your favorite team.
Danville’s bowl-killers next set their sights on the Dixie Classic in 1922 (the game in which Texas A&M’s 12th Man tradition was born) and ended it for a few years, but it would eventually recover as the Cotton Bowl.
Showing mercy on the rest of bowl season, the Colonels declined invites to the 1951 Corn Bowl and 1955 Tangerine Bowl and eventually dropped to Division III, sparing bowls from tyranny at last.
Ohio State 20, Purdue 49
These are points from a single football game, sure, but let’s remember lil ole Purdue has beaten big, bad Ohio State five times this millennium, while the Buckeyes only have seven NCAA-recognized wins in return. Unlike Michigan, Purdue takes full advantage whenever the Buckeyes are less than excellent, but 2018 was a whole new level — OSU would’ve made the Playoff if it could’ve tackled Rondale Moore at all.