Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Underdogs on top

(Posted on Frostburg's The Bottom Line here)

When it comes to sports, everything goes. Each sport has its own certain rules and guidelines, but no boundaries exist with what can happen both on and off the field. Many people love sports for that reason alone – they never know exactly what’s going to happen next. That trend has been especially true over the last few years.

Appalachian State’s stunning upset of Michigan two weeks ago is the most recent example of an impressive achievement for an underdog. A Football Championship Subdivision (former known as Division I-AA) team had never beaten a ranked Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) team until the Mountaineers stormed into Ann Arbor and refused to lose. Appalachian State, though, is not alone in giving a heavily favored opponent a shocking defeat.

Underdogs have arguably achieved the most in Major League Baseball. With the addition of the wild card spot in 1995, more teams have had a shot to knock off division leaders and ride the momentum into the World Series. Last season the St. Louis Cardinals, only five games above .500, snuck into the playoffs, propelled themselves through the NL playoffs, and went on to beat the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Other wild card World Series champions include the Florida Marlins in both 1997 and 2003, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2002, and the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

Another shocking event occurred in 2006 when #11 seed George Mason went on an unbelievable run to reach the Final Four. Every so often college basketball has a surprising upset in the regular season or in the NCAA Tournament, but rarely has a feat as impressive as George Mason’s run been accomplished. This astonishing stretch, which included wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and Connecticut, was perhaps even a more spectacular achievement than Appalachian State’s upset win since it took four separate victories.

Last year the Golden State Warriors shocked the entire NBA by taking down the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors, only an eight seed, manhandled the top-seeded Mavericks in the first round. The Warriors pushed the tempo and made people believe that they were, in fact, the favorites. They ran with the momentum in the series, constantly feeding off of their raucous home crowd, but they still lost in the second round to the Utah Jazz. The upset in the previous round was impressive nonetheless.

Many people enjoy cheering for the underdog, but occasionally underdogs are turning into winners on the biggest stage. Fueled by momentum, the ability to unite, and the development of a chip on their shoulders, underdogs continue to give many sports fans reasons for watching certain games. When a few things go wrong and the favorites make mistakes and leave the door open, underdogs have been snatching opportunities and advantages away.

One of the best examples of the underdog role versus the favorite role can be seen in just one team – the New Orleans Saints in the NFL. Last year an increased fan base and a few new faces (Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, and Head Coach Sean Payton) helped the Saints surprise many teams in the league, and they reached the NFC Championship Game. Even though they lost to the Bears, many peopled believe that the Saints would be even better this year. But during their opening game on Monday Night Football against the Indianapolis Colts, the Saints were viewed almost as equals, and they definitely didn’t play with the same fire and intensity they had shown last year.

Things change fast in the NFL. But even if the Saints look great next week, they’ll never be able to completely capture the same atmosphere they played under last season.

Plenty of other notable upsets in all sports surely exist and are not included here, but the point is this – sometimes underdogs have their opponents right where they want them. There will always be more games to play, but even so, underdogs pulling off stunning victories will never stop.

And really, who would want it to? (Besides Michigan fans…)

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