Nicholls St. beat Western Michigan yesterday, 27-24. If you don’t know anything about Nicholls St., you’re probably thinking, “So what? FCS teams have won several games like this in the last few years, who cares if a mediocre MAC team lost a game like this?” Hopefully I can explain.
Going into today, most people probably regarded the biggest upset of a I-A/FBS team by a I-AA/FCS team as the upset by Appalachian St. against Michigan, which caused the AP to revise its rules to allow for voters to rank I-AA teams for the first time. So I’m going to talk about that first.
Michigan was ranked #5 nationally when it lost to Appalachian St. in the opener in 2007, but that was mostly because it was widely regarded as the second-best team in the nation for most of the year in 2006.
Most people had not heard of Appalachian St. before then, but they probably should have. The Mountaineers were on a 14-game winning streak since losing to North Carolina St. in the 2006 opener. They were on a 23-game winning streak against I-AA opponents dating back to October 2005.
Michigan had a decent year in 2007, but they did lose to 3 I-A opponents that year as well. Appalachian St.’s winning streak did end in 2007, but the Mountaineers won their third consecutive title despite two losses on the year. So in hindsight, you can at least understand Appalachian St. having the confidence to believe it could win that game.
As an aside, I’m not even sure that was a bigger upset than Stanford over USC, also in 2007. Stanford, which had gone 1-11 the year before, ended a 35-game home winning streak for the Trojans, who would lose only one other game in the 2007 season. USC was the #2 team in the nation going into that game after starting the season #1. Stanford would finish 4-8 in 2007. The closest comparison I can think of is if Kentucky beats Alabama this year and then Alabama goes on to win the Sugar Bowl.
Anyway, comparing that 2007 Appalachian St. team to 2013 Nicholls St. isn’t like comparing day and night. It’s like comparing the surface of the sun to the dark side of the moon.
Going into yesterday, the Nicholls St. Colonels had a 21-game LOSING streak against NCAA schools (15 of them FCS). The Colonels’ only wins in 2011 and 2012 combined were both against Evangel College, which competes in NAIA. Nicholls St. had lost its last three games against FBS opponents by a combined score of 209-22, managing only a field goal apiece against Oregon to start this year and against Oregon St. at the end of last year.
Oregon St. lost to an FCS opponent, Eastern Washington this year, but just to show how Nicholls St. compares in the context of FCS, the Beavers beat the Colonels last November by a score of 77-3. So Eastern Washington won by 3 against a team made up mostly of the players who had beaten Nicholls St. by 74.
The last time the Colonels had played Western Michigan, in 2011, the Broncos won, 38-7. That WMU team went to a bowl game, by the way. So although the Broncos finished 4-8 last year, we’re not talking about a long-term doormat or anything. There probably is a good number of players on the team with bowl experience.
To be fair, Nicholls St. only lost to South Alabama 9-3 last season, but that was the Jaguars’ first game as an FBS transitional team after going only 4-4 against Division I competition (mostly FCS) the year before. Not quite the same thing. South Alabama also suffered a loss to an FCS team already this season before beating Tulane, a winner of only two games last season.
Western Michigan, on the other hand, had not lost to a currently FCS team since 1996 despite playing one in almost every season, usually wining by a convincing margin. For instance, in 2004, by far the worst WMU season in recent history, the Broncos still beat Tennessee-Martin, 42-0.
The only team I can think of nearly as bad as Nicholls St. that has won a game like this was Central Arkansas in 2009, which was only playing its fourth season in Division I. The Bears finished 5-7, but two of those wins were not against Division I teams and one was against… Nicholls St. But since the upset game by the Central Arkansas was over Western Kentucky, a team fairly new to FBS play, that one was nothing close to the Nicholls St. upset.
So in short, if there is an argument for a bigger disparity in a win by an FCS team over an FBS team, I’d certainly like to hear it. I know a little bit about the subject matter (obviously), but that’s all I can come up with.