Jack Freeman / IrishIllustrated.com

The Art of Avoiding the Upset

The target sits squarely in the middle of the back of the nation’s top head coaches. Underdog status is rare. To stay on top, you have to win virtually every game you play.

In June, Athlon Sports ranked FBS head football coaches one through 128.

While one could argue a case for coaches like Bobby Petrino (Louisville), Chris Petersen (Washington) and up-and-coming Tom Herman (Houston), the top 10 that Athlon settled on is pretty standard.

Obviously, Nick Saban (Alabama) and Urban Meyer (Ohio State) – with their combined eight national titles – sit above the rest.

From there, some combination of Jimbo Fisher (Florida State), Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), David Shaw (Stanford), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and Gary Patterson (TCU) rounds out the top 10.

It’s not easy sitting at the head of the pack. Underdogs are lining up for a shot at knocking these coaches off their pedestal. For guys like Saban and Meyer, it’s a real rarity when their squads enter a game as anything but the favorite, and it’s usually prohibitive.

In fact, Saban’s Alabama squads have been installed as underdogs just once in the last five seasons, and that came a year ago at Georgia when the Crimson Tide went “between the hedges” two weeks after losing at home to Mississippi. Alabama, a one-point underdog, defeated the Bulldogs by four touchdowns.

So it’s a rare game that these 10 coaches enter a game getting points, which means the pressure is on to hold serve on a weekly basis. The slightest stumble and it’s the lead story on every sports page/college football website.

Over the last five seasons, how have these 10 coaches faired as the favorite, when the whole world is expecting another victory?

Here they are based upon winning percentage as the favorite from 2011-15. Note that the records are straight up, not versus the spread.

10) Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) -- Record as favorite (45-12, .789)
Not since 2004 has a Sooner team under Stoops gone an entire season (bowl game included) without getting bumped off as a favorite, which is why his star has fallen in recent years. In four of the last five seasons, Oklahoma has lost as the favorite at least twice, including five times in 2014. Notre Dame, a 12-point underdog in Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in 2012, won by 17.

9) David Shaw (Stanford) – Record as favorite (48-11, .813)
Of Stanford’s 14 losses over the last five seasons, 11 have come as the favorite, including at Northwestern to open the 2015 season and at Notre Dame in 2014, which was one of four such losses (and five overall) that year. Underdog Utah did the trick in 2013-14, as did USC the same seasons. A 7-6 Washington team coached by Steve Sarkisian pulled off the upset in 2012.

8) Gary Patterson (TCU) – Record as favorite (38-8, .826)
The Horned Frogs were on the verge of leaving the Mountain West Conference for the Big East when the seismic shifts in the college football landscape prompted a reversal. They joined the Big 12 in 2012. The first couple seasons were a huge step up and rather rocky (7-6 overall in ’12, 4-8 in ’13). And yet over the last five seasons, including the 2011 campaign against lesser competition, Patterson and Co. have gone from being upset seven times from 2011-13 to a sparkling 21-1 record as a favorite in 2014-15. A trip to Oklahoma State without QB Trevone Boykin was the one blemish as a favorite last season.

7) Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) – Record as favorite (40-6, .869)
Upset losses leap off the page, particularly a drubbing at the hands of Navy and a tactically-flawed loss at home to Tulsa in Kelly’s debut season with the Irish. After two seasons, Kelly’s record as a favorite was a disappointing 13-6. Over the last four years, the upsets – at Pittsburgh in ’13, at home to Northwestern and Louisville in ’14 – have been less frequent, although the upset losses haven’t exactly come against real quality competition. Kelly is 32-3 as the favorite since 2012, although he’s struggled in games in which the Irish were underdogs. The Irish are just 9-14 under Kelly when getting points over six seasons.

6) Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) – Record as favorite (43-6, .877)
The 2012 season is the outlier for Dantonio over the past five seasons with four upset losses – including a 20-3 loss to Notre Dame in Spartan Stadium in ’12 – amidst a 7-6 overall campaign. Since then, he’s dropped just two out of 32 games as the favorite – a controversial one-point loss at Nebraska last season and at home against eventual national champ Ohio State in 2014.

5) Nick Saban (Alabama) – Record as favorite (61-7, .897)
All but one game over the last five seasons has found the Crimson Tide getting points, so virtually every loss is a stumble to an underdog, usually in heated SEC games. Mississippi (2014-15) has been the greatest thorn in the side of the Crimson Tide. Ohio State (’14), Oklahoma (’13), Auburn (’13), Texas A&M (’12) and LSU (’11) are shocking only because Alabama lost, not because the competition was inferior.

4) Jimbo Fisher (Florida State)  – Record as favorite (58-6, .906)
Only Nick Saban has played more games as the favorite the last five years than Fisher and the Seminoles. The bad upsets came at the hands of Georgia Tech in ’15, a 39-point loss to Oregon in the ’14 playoffs, at 16-point underdog N.C. State in ’12, at 10-point underdog Wake Forest in ’11, and at home to 17-point underdog Virginia in ’11. Over the last three seasons, however, the Seminoles are 37-2 as the favorite.

3) Dabo Swinney (Clemson) – Record as favorite (48-5, .907)
Over the last four seasons, Swinney has paced this distinguished group with a 41-2 mark as the favorite. The only upset losses came at 11-win Georgia Tech in ’14 and versus 11-win South Carolina in ’12. Not only have Swinney and his Tigers held serve as favorites a high percentage of the time, they’re 4-1 as underdogs in their last five post-regular-season games with two wins over Oklahoma, and one each over Ohio State and LSU.

2) Jim Harbaugh (Michigan) – Record as favorite (10-1, .909)
Obviously, one season does not make for a good comparison against this distinguished field. But there’s little doubt that Harbaugh will safely be among this group as the Wolverines become a weekly favorite in the Big Ten.
 
1) Urban Meyer (Ohio State) – Record as favorite (42-4, .913)
Meyer’s mark is over a four-year period as he enters his fifth campaign leading the Buckeyes. Losses to Michigan State at home in late-November of last year, at home against Virginia Tech in September of ’14, and against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game as well as the Orange Bowl against Clemson in ’13 are the only blemishes. Of the 38 victories the last three years, 32 have been by double digits.


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