College Football's Biggest Upsets

 height=I'm back with more riveting statistical analysis for the world. Try to stay calm and please, do not mob me when I go out in public. Just be patient as I have never refused a photo or autograph request from a fan.

This newest list will once again be based on my ratings, which of course will introduce a few constraints on the analysis. My historical ratings are obviously year-end results and not even I am interested in recalculating each season by taking out the upset in question and then assigning a value. So this analysis is based on each team's final rating for the full season (including the upset). The z-table was limited to one-hundredths accuracy, meaning that rating differences were rounded. This results in some of the games having the same percentage, but they are sorted by actual difference.

My first step was to take the Top 1000 teams in the All-Time ratings set and look at any losses they suffered. I then took the difference in the final ratings between the two teams, applied a standard z-table, and determined the percentage likelihood that the better team would win a rematch according to the final ratings. The effect of the constraint listed above now becomes apparent. Because the computer used the actual upset in its calculations, it sees the upset as a "true" evaluation of the two teams' abilities. Therefore the percentages that this technique produces are deflated relative to if I had recalculated the year's ratings without the upset and then looked at the matchup. Each team's worst loss was analyzed and if that loss had a percentage of 80% or greater - remember, this is the probability that the ratings say the loser would win a rematch - then their next worst loss was looked at. This ensured that all losses scoring greater than 80% among the All-Time Top 1000 teams were accounted for.

So here are the 25 Biggest Upsets in College Football History using only the top 1000 teams and losses (ties not included). Season ranks are based on D-1A teams only.

Rank Winner (Season Ranking) Loser (Season Ranking) %
1 1981 Georgia Tech (102) 1981 Alabama (9) 98.26%
2 1978 Memphis (77) 1978 Houston (11) 95.73%
3 1980 New Mexico (86) 1980 BYU (14) 95.64%
4 1982 Washington St. (71) 1982 Washington (8) 95.35%
5 1999 Cincinnati (72) 1999 Wisconsin (6) 95.25%
6 2007 Stanford (68) 2007 Southern Cal (6) 95.05%
7 1977 Mississippi (44) 1977 Notre Dame (3) 94.74%
8 1989 Southern Miss (46) 1989 Florida St. (4) 94.06%
9 2007 Pittsburgh (61) 2007 West Virginia (5) 93.45%
10 2001 Oklahoma St. (62) 2001 Oklahoma (6) 92.79%
11 1961 TCU (32) 1961 Texas (2) 92.51%
12 1998 Michigan St. (33) 1998 Ohio St. (2) 92.22%
13 2002 Texas A&M (47) 2002 Oklahoma (4) 91.77%
14 1991 Southern Cal (39) 1991 Penn St. (6) 91.62%
15 1996 Memphis (57) 1996 Tennessee (8) 91.62%
16 1976 Purdue (40) 1976 Michigan (3) 91.47%
17 1993 Minnesota (50) 1993 Wisconsin (8) 91.47%
18 1998 North Carolina St. (34) 1998 Florida St. (3) 91.31%
19 2003 California (34) 2003 Southern Cal (2) 91.15%
20 1976 Mississippi (39) 1976 Georgia (4) 91.15%
21 1957 Kentucky (48) 1957 Tennessee (8) 90.99%
22 1970 Texas A&M (59) 1970 LSU (9) 90.32%
23 1978 Oklahoma St. (62) 1978 Missouri (15) 89.62%
24 2001 Auburn (28) 2001 Florida (2) 89.44%
25 1980 San Jose St. (62) 1980 Baylor (15) 89.25%

At this point I always like to clarify that this list is not intended to be the final say in this discussion, only a starting point. Obviously some of the games are so close in their ranking that even this system doesn't really declare a clear winner. Also, as I'm sure many of you are wondering, Bob Stoops also appears on the list at #28 (2007 Colorado) and #30 (2002 Oklahoma St.); Mack Brown has never lost an 80% game. Hey, at least it's something, right? Pete Carroll also appears at #33 (2006 UCLA) and #72 (2006 Oregon St.). I'm starting to think that the more great teams you have the more likely they are to be upset.

One of the things I noticed was the lack of old games. Part of it is certainly parity, but I think the biggest factor in this discrepancy is that more games are played, giving the system a better idea of teams' true strength. Back in the old days when a team would only play one or two games against good teams, those games are all the system has to rate the teams. So what was probably a huge upset (like Centre over Harvard in 1921) is not considered as big in my ratings because the winner is inflated due to the lack of other information.

After this was complete I decided to throw in some other games. To do so I used the following links as a starting point:

Biggest Point Spread Reversals

A blogger's list of big upsets

Ivan Maisel's biggest upsets written in 2002

I also decided to throw in ties because of Maisel's article and the only big one I could think of was Texas A&M and SMU back in the day. So here is a table that includes all games in the above links plus that A&M/SMU tie and Appalachian St./Michigan game, followed by a table showing the biggest upsets that Texas has been involved in. However, I did leave out the games in the above links that are not considered upsets under this system.

Rank Winner (Season Ranking) Loser (Season Ranking) %
1 1985 UTEP (108) 1985 BYU (22) 99.68%
2 1994 SMU (85) (GAME TIED) 1994 Texas A&M (10) 98.54%
3 1998 Temple (93) 1998 Virginia Tech (21) 98.12%
4 1980 Georgia Tech (83) (GAME TIED) 1980 Notre Dame (8) 97.19%
5 1992 Iowa St. (69) 1992 Nebraska (13) 94.06%
6 2007 Appalachian St. (64*) 2007 Michigan (13) 88.10%
7 1986 California (52) 1986 Stanford (15) 86.65%
8 1985 Oregon St. (77) 1985 Washington (37) 85.54%
9 1942 Holy Cross (57) 1942 Boston College (17) 80.23%
10 1972 Missouri (31) 1972 Notre Dame (14) 69.5%
11 1949 Auburn (65) 1949 Alabama (41) 69.15%
12 1969 San Jose St. (71) 1969 Oregon (45) 65.91%
13 1921 Centre (27) 1921 Harvard (20) 56.36%

* - Appalachian State ranking based on where they would have been if they were D-1A

Rank Winner (Season Ranking) Loser (Season Ranking) %
1 1961 TCU (32) 1961 Texas (2) 92.51%
2 1941 Baylor (59) (GAME TIED) 1941 Texas (3) 89.07%
3 1962 Rice (52) (GAME TIED) 1962 Texas (8) 88.01%
4 1996 Oklahoma (78) 1996 Texas (23) 87.70%
5 1999 Texas (23) 1999 Nebraska (3) 86.43%
6 1968 Texas Tech (41) 1968 Texas (3) 86.21%
7 1978 Baylor (39) 1978 Texas (8) 85.99%
8 1948 Texas A&M (68) (GAME TIED) 1948 Texas (17) 84.61%
9 1992 TCU (91) 1992 Texas (48) 83.15%
10 1976 Texas (29) (GAME TIED) 1976 Oklahoma (9) 81.86%
11 1994 Rice (72) 1994 Texas (33) 81.33%
12 1965 Rice (71) 1965 Texas (27) 81.33%
13 1967 Texas (33) 1967 Oklahoma (2) 81.06%
14 1996 Texas (23) 1996 Nebraska (5) 80.51%
15 1991 Texas (46) 1991 Oklahoma (17) 80.51%
16 1980 Texas (29) 1980 Oklahoma (6) 80.23%
17 1957 Texas (50) 1957 Baylor (22) 80.23%

The 1968 Texas Tech loss is obviously a big one when viewed at the end of the season, but we know that the new system was still being implemented early in the year.

If any of you have some big upsets in mind that I've missed, let me know and I'll plug in the numbers.

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