Growing up in England and watching the other "football" (I refuse to call it soccer), I'm used to hearing stories about "giant-killing" matches in the hallowed traditions of F.A. Cup matches where teams from lower leagues and smaller towns occasionally have the opportunity to take on the very best teams in the country. Ah, the magic of the F.A. Cup. Non-league Sutton United, managed by an English teacher, beat previous cup winners Coventry 2-1 in 1989, and League Two Stevenage upset Premier League Newcastle United 3-1 in 2011.
Top-tier American professional sports leagues don't tend to have relegation or promotion between levels so the opportunity for a small team to upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL simply doesn't exist. It does, however, in college football.
College football teams' seasons consist of games against certain opponents within their own conference, the SEC, for example. They are then able to arrange games against "non-conference" opponents which could include teams from the higher tier FBS schools (typically major top-tier universities) or lower tier FCS schools (typically made up of smaller programs). Alternatively, they can play against independent schools who aren't members of conferences, Notre Dame, for example. These teams then have the opportunity to test themselves against a premier opponent and earn a decent amount of money in exchange for an expected beating.
Opening day, 2007
On September 1st, 2007, the two teams meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the opening day of the college football season, tore up the script. A crowd of 109,218 at Michigan Stadium ("The Big House"), watched their home team University of Michigan Wolverines, ranked No.5 in the country, take on Appalachian State from Boone, North Carolina.
The defending two-time FCS champion Appalachian State arrived as favourites to win a third consecutive championship but were expected to lose heavily to a Michigan team who were seen as preseason favourites to win the Big Ten conference and contenders for the national championship. The Mountaineers were 33-point underdogs according to Las Vegas bookmakers, but would receive a $400,000 paycheck for their troubles. The home team contained future first overall NFL draft pick Jake Long, a 6'7", 322lb tackle, and quarterback Chad Henne, who would go on to win two Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs, backing up Patrick Mahomes.
The visitors used their superior speed and agility to gain the early edge on a bigger Michigan team, and raced to a 28-17 lead by the end of the first half. The second half saw the Wolverines regain the advantage, with Mike Hart's 54-yard touchdown putting Michigan ahead 32-31 with a little over four minutes left.
Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards drove the Mountaineers 69 yards down the field to set up what proved to be the game-winning field goal kicked by Julian Rauch with 26 seconds left on the clock. Wolverines quarterback Chad Henne launched the ball 46 yards downfield to Mario Manningham, giving Michigan kicker Jason Gingell an opportunity to win the game with a 37-yard field goal attempt. Gingell had a previous 43-yard attempt blocked just a minute and a half earlier.
Up stepped Mountaineers' defensive back Corey Lynch, who blocked the kick and raced down the field as the clock wound down, adding the exclamation mark on an extraordinary victory. Quarterback Armanti Edwards threw for 227 yards and three touchdwns, running for 62 yards. Wide receiver Dexter Jackson caught three receptions, two of which were touchdown passes, for 92 yards. "It was David versus Goliath," he famously said after the game.
Appalachian State became the first FCS team to beat a ranked FBS team, and continued their momentum, winning a third consecutive FCS championship with a 13-2 record. Michigan, their season virtually over after the opening game, tumbled from No.5 straight out of the AP Top 25 poll at the end of Week 1, the first time in history this had happened after a single game. They ended the season 9-4, ranked No.18. Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season.
Michigan would thrash the Mountaineers 52-14 in a rematch seven years later, but the story had already been written.
The victorious head coach of the small school from Boone, North Carolina, summed up the enormity of the occasion:
"Someone said it might be one of the big victories in college football. It may be the biggest." - Appalachian State head coach Jerry Moore.