If there is one cliche we never seem to tire of in sports, it's the biblical story of David vs. Goliath (1 Samuel 17) that writers and broadcasters use to help explain an upset.
Never mind that it is the intellectual equivalent of beginning a novel with the words, "It was a dark and stormy night." Each year, when a tiny team pulls off a major upset - claiming, more often than not, that it was motivated by disrespect or even outright dismissal - the news wires and airwaves are littered with references to the story of David, the future king of Israel, slaying Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, with a single stone.
Never has this been as true as it was last week
when tiny Appalachian State stunned the sports world with a 34-32 upset victory over No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor. Pundits were shoving one another out of the way so they could jump in front of a camera and declare it the biggest upset in the history of college football. No team from Division I-AA (which the NCAA now ridiculously insists we call the Football Championship Subdivision) had ever beaten a ranked team from I-A (which we're supposed to now call the Football Bowl Subdivision).
Problem is, the analogy isn't just tired, it's false. And it has very little to do with the fact that, at the end of the biblical story, David chops off Goliath's head with a sword and keeps it for a trophy. (Although, to be fair, there are plenty of Michigan fans right now who wouldn't have objected much had coach Lloyd Carr suffered a similar fate.)
It's obvious Michigan has better players. No reasonable person would dispute that. But there is something far more interesting about the game that few people seem to want to grasp as the ripples from the upset begin to fade: Appalachian State just might have the better team.
The meaning behind the word "team" has changed in the past few decades, in part because of the way we embrace fantasy sports in this country. Fantasy sports are a tremendous source of fun (I'll confess, I've played in a baseball and football league since college), but over time, they've also infected far too many of us with a virus that makes us forget the most important lesson that sport will constantly teach us: The collective efforts of a cohesive group can overcome a talented group of individuals.
And even though that sounds like it was plagiarized directly from the playbook of Friedrich Engels or Karl Marx, it's actually just the plot of every memorable sports movie released in the past 20 years. And that idea is a much easier sell at the I-AA level, which is why, despite a scholarship disadvantage, the gap between college football's top two divisions isn't as large as you might think - especially in a one-game match-up, when depth isn't as big a factor.
I know because I played football at the I-AA level, at the University of Montana, albeit briefly and not very successfully. Montana, like Appalachian State, is a traditional I-AA power, and my freshman year, we whipped Oregon State in Corvallis, setting the tone for a season that ended with an appearance in the I-AA national championship game. (We were destroyed by a Marshall team led by future NFL star Randy Moss, but at least the trophy was awarded based on what happened on the field, not inside a computer.)
The beauty of football at the I-AA level is that very few players have a sense of entitlement about anything. In fact, most have a chip on their shoulder because they weren't recruited by a larger school. And since no one dreams of leaving early for the NFL, it's easier for a sense of brotherhood to develop over time. Speed obviously matters, and in a technical sense, Appalachian State was able to beat Michigan because it had plenty of speed. But guts matter almost as much, even if you can't measure them with a stopwatch.
College football, at its highest level, however, is a corporation, a multibillion dollar business interested, first and foremost, in protecting those already in power. There is a reason it's so difficult for a team like Boise State, an old I-AA titan that made the leap to I-A in 1996, to schedule nonconference games against elite teams. Most university presidents and athletic directors are more interested in scheduling games they assume will be easy victories, which pad the bottom line without much risk and get their programs one step closer to bowl eligibility.
As a result, no sport in America rewards mediocrity quite as often, or as lucratively, as major college football. More than half of the teams go to a postseason bowl game, and it takes only six wins to get there. Some college coaches become more entrenched than lifelong senators simply because they are practically guaranteed seven wins a year with their soft schedules.
Therein lies the best part of Appalachian State's win: It was a wake-up call for all the bloated superpowers that have been living off both recruiting hype and history more than actual results. It wasn't David slinging stones at Goliath. It's was an army of Davids, standing shoulder to shoulder, striking a small blow for anyone who believes that a team, especially if it's hungry and pure of heart, can still win the day.