Every team has it: the Achilles heel, the soft spot; the bugaboo, the hobgoblin.
Yes, there’s always that team that has someone else’s number, that seems able to exploit all weaknesses, that puts all its firepower into securing the upset. No matter how good or highly ranked a team is, there’s the giant slayer who undercuts success, who ruins seasons, who crushes hopes and dreams on conveniently timed evening kickoffs.
So who are among the greatest bogeymen in college football?
From a single season perspective, there were the 1967 Oregon State Beavers, who defeated No. 2 Purdue, tied No. 1 UCLA and beat No. 1 USC over a four-week span. Of course, the Beavers also lost to unranked Washington and BYU teams.
But there are teams who, seemingly year in and year out, are the regular bogeymen who change the course of the football season with a single spectacular upset — one that will live on in the minds of fans for years. Let’s take a look here (and reminder: don’t look under the bed).
It hurts to even talk about it, but the Boilermakers have been slaying the giants of the Big Ten for years. We all remember how Purdue famously beat Ohio State in 2018, and Iowa this season. In fact, as an unranked team, Purdue has nine wins over top-two teams. The next program on the list has a mere four. That’s enough to give the Boilermakers the top spot on the list.
Of course, the Boilermakers have given Iowa in particular trouble for years, with Purdue owning the all-time series 50-39-3, and taking four of the last five over the Hawkeyes. In some ways, Jeff Brohm has been Kirk Ferentz’s personal poltergeist.
That being said, criteria have to be met in the case of Purdue: The Boilermakers have to be unranked and playing a No. 2 team for their evil powers to kick in.
Sticking to the Big Ten, the team most regularly tormented by Purdue is itself something of a bogeyman, and one that is also particularly painful for Ohio State fans to think about. In fact, specifically mediocre Iowa teams tend to get the upset at home:
- 2008: No. 3 Penn State, 24-23
- 2016: No. 10 Michigan 14-13
- 2017: No. 6 Ohio State 55-24
- 2019: No. 8 Minnesota, 23-19
There was also a 2009 win on the road over No. 5 Penn State 21-10, although that squad ultimately finished in the top ten and gave Big Ten champion Ohio State all they could handle in an overtime loss at the Shoe (a game far more dramatic than any of the actual Big Ten title games featuring OSU to date). The track record is impressive, particularly against fellow Big Ten opponents, and it was somewhat gratifying to see Iowa get a taste of its own medicine against Purdue.
Moving over to the ACC, there is perhaps no greater bogeyman in this conference than Pitt. In 2017, the Panthers beat a second-ranked Miami team 24-14 the day after Thanksgiving. The year before, another unranked Pitt team beat No. 3 Clemson 43-42. Earlier in 2016, Pitt (still unranked) beat a Penn State squad that would eventually just be snubbed out of the College Football Playoff.
And that was just a short series of upsets. There was also that time back in the 2007 Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia when a yet-again-unranked Panthers team beat No. 2 West Virginia 13-9, spoiling the Mountaineers’ shot at a BCS title game berth.
Pitt’s fellow in the ACC has its own track record of major upsets. In particular, the Cardinals have been a thorn in the side of fellow ACC member Florida State, beating No. 4 Florida State in 2002 in overtime and the second-ranked Seminoles in 2016 ((granted, Louisville was ranked 10th nationally in the second rendition).
The Cardinals have also recorded major wins against Florida (2013) and highly ranked Southern Miss teams (1981, 20010), but the former was in a bowl game, so does it really count as an upset?
Year in and year out, Louisville doesn’t seem to bring as much of the upset-mindset to the table, and perhaps it’s because, at various times, Louisville has itself been a giant in the college football landscape. It also doesn’t help that the Cardinals’ biggest wins came over the same team twice in 15 years.
North Dakota State
Heading out of the FBS entirely, the FCS school has beaten its fair share of powerful FBS opponents. We see a familiar name on the list here, since, until Montana beat No. 20 Washington this season, the last FCS team to beat a ranked FBS opponent was when the Bison beat 13th-ranked Iowa in 2016. North Dakota State has also beaten Iowa State, Kansas State, Colorado State, Minnesota (twice), Kansas and Central Michigan — all since 2007. While none of these teams, excepting Iowa, were ranked when the Bison beat them, it’s still an impressive record.
Kansas State smothered No. 7 Texas 41-21 in 2007. The year before, the also-unranked Wildcats beat the No. 4 Longhorns 45-42. But then there was that time in 2019 when Kansas State beat No. 5 Oklahoma 48-41.
The Wildcats have their fair share of “upset” wins as lower-ranked teams (particularly over Oklahoma), but the three games mentioned above are the real marquee wins.
Sticking to the Big 12, we’re all familiar with the Cyclones’ most recent win over a top-10 team as an unranked squad (though we can hardly call it an upset, as Iowa State was favored at home in the matchup).
The real upset came in 2011, when unranked Iowa State beat No. 2 Oklahoma State in Ames in double overtime, but the stories of the bogeyman Cyclones don’t stop there, Iowa State also beat No. 6 West Virginia in 2018, and in 2017, Iowa State recorded wins over No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 TCU over a four-week span.
Boise State, UCF and Appalachian State
We also have to pay homage to the Group of Five schools. Boise State has its signature win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl (again, do bowl games count?), but the Broncos also scored a top-10 win over BYU this year.
UCF was more of a flash in the pan (thanks a lot, Scott Frost), but there was that one time the Knights beat No. 7 Auburn in the 2018 Peach Bowl.
Appalachian State, similarly, had its all-time signature win over Michigan in 2007, but the Mountaineers also got a win over an undefeated Coastal Carolina squad just last Thursday.