College Football’s Greatest Cinderella Stories Ever

The college football season might invite a surprise, and it might not, but just in case a shocker is just around the corner. Consider examples from the past of college football Cinderellas who achieved in a memorable way and captured the imagination of sports fans. Here are five of the foremost examples of little guys who did big things in college football, and in ways which were important to the sport.

1) Boise State 2006 Season – 2007 Fiesta Bowl

There is no better or more fundamental modern-day example of the idea that smaller programs – if given a chance – can compete on equal terms with the big boys. Boise State has played football for 10 years following its 2006 season, but it was that 2006 season which first brought the Broncos to a place of national respect, where everyone took the school seriously. Boise State had lost to Louisville in the 2004 Liberty Bowl. The game was close and hard-fought, but the Broncos lost. That game didn’t have the platform of the Fiesta Bowl.

In 2006, something important happened. college football moved the Bowl Championship Series from a four-game event to a five-game event. The purpose of the fifth game was to give teams from the smaller conferences more of a chance to play against the elite big-name schools in a bowl. Boise State-Oklahoma was a natural extension of that plan and format. When Boise State came from behind in the final minutes to send the game into overtime, and then used a Statue of Liberty trick play to score the winning 2-point conversion in overtime, the school’s reputation changed forever. Even more important was the reality that smaller schools were taken seriously when playing the brand names of college football.

2) Northwestern 1995 Season – 1996 Rose Bowl

The Northwestern Wildcats hadn’t made a bowl game of any kind since the 1949 Rose Bowl when they began their 1995 season. An early loss to Miami of Ohio suggested the story would remain the same in Evanston, Illinois, but then the Wildcats – anchored by a stout defense – simply did not lose a Big Ten game. Northwestern went 8-0 in conference and won a trip to the 1996 Rose Bowl. The Wildcats didn’t beat USC in that game, but they had still surpassed all expectations. This team changed the culture at the school, and it also made it possible for schools such as Duke, Vanderbilt and Stanford to believe they could win as well, despite rigorous academic requirements.

3) BYU 1984 National Championship

The reason the Cougars aren’t higher on this list is that they played a 6-5 Michigan team in their bowl game, the Holiday Bowl. The conference tie-ins which existed for many years in bowl games locked BYU – as the Western Athletic Conference champion – into the Holiday Bowl. This was not BYU’s fault, but it nevertheless stands that in their bowl game, the Cougars did not play Washington or Oklahoma, two top-five teams which played in the 1985 Orange Bowl, roughly a week and a half after the 1984 Holiday Bowl between BYU and Michigan. BYU did not have to play a giant in the world of college football. Nevertheless, BYU went 13-0 and met every challenge on its schedule. That is very impressive, 33 years later.

4) 1959 Syracuse National Championship

Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder coached Jim Brown, but he did not dominate college football with him. Syracuse, having never won more than eight games in a season and having never won a bowl game, set out on its 1959 season with modest expectations. Yet, the Orange found the winning formula that fall. They got into a groove and stayed there. Syracuse beat Texas in that season’s Cotton Bowl in Dallas, in a hostile environment.

Running back Ernie Davis, the successor to Jim Brown, turned in a season for the ages, and what magnified the moment is that Syracuse didn’t win more than eight games in a season under Schwartzwalder in the remainder of his SU career, which lasted through 1973. This was a one-of-a-kind journey which holds an eternal place in Syracuse football lore.

5) Appalachian State 2007 Victory Over Michigan

This was not a story of a season, but more one game. The fact that an FCS team (Appalachian State has since moved up to the FBS, but it was a lower-division team at the time) could go into Michigan Stadium and beat Michigan was unthinkable. Moreover, Michigan was deep and good in 2007, one season after making the Rose Bowl and narrowly losing to Ohio State in a game which determined both the Big Ten champion and a representative in the BCS National Championship Game. Appalachian State beat Michigan when the Wolverines had proven veteran players, not newbies.

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About Geoff Harvey

Geoff Harvey has been setting his fantasy rosters since his days in the womb, just don't ask him how he used to get his waiver-wire reports back then. He's a lifelong fan of sports, especially the fantasy and betting aspects.
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