Was Kansas’ Win over Texas the Biggest Upset Ever?
NCAA Week 11 – Walk-on fullback Jared Casey hauled in a two-point conversion pass in overtime to seal a 57-56 victory by the Kansas Jayhawks over the Texas Longhorns on Saturday night, capping the most noteworthy upset of the season in dramatic, storybook fashion. Casey’s first offensive snap of his collegiate career came earlier in the day, and the game-winning play was his first career reception. It was a night of many firsts, as Kansas claimed its first Big 12 road victory in over 13 seasons, and its first victory in Austin ever. Per ESPN, Kansas had lost 100 times in 100 games since 1978 as an underdog of 24 or more points, and Texas had won 79 times in 79 games as a favorite of 24 or more points in the same span. But the 31-point underdog Jayhawks snapped those streaks, seized the upset, and notched their first FBS victory of the Lance Leipold era.
The Longhorns have been on a downward slide ever since jumping out to a 28-7 lead over Oklahoma last month. They let the Sooners mount a furious comeback victory that day, then surrendered a two-touchdown lead against Oklahoma State in a loss the following week. They led Baylor 21-10 early in the second half two weeks after that before suffering yet another comeback loss. Then they laid an egg (30-7) against Iowa State in Week 10. The losses were piling up and Texas was drifting, but they still ranked among the FEI top 20 throughout that stretch on the strength of their (mostly) competitive performances against solid competition. Four straight losses are never anything to boast about, but it was a four-game gauntlet against strong opponents and their overall drive efficiency numbers remained respectable.
With all apologies to Casey and the rest of the Jayhawks, Saturday was categorically not respectable. Texas may not be stockpiled with the elite roster talent it needs to perhaps one day return to the top of college football world, but the Longhorns boast better players than Kansas at every position. And Kansas had had woeful performances all season, ranking dead-last among all FBS teams in net drive efficiency, net points per drive, and net available yards percentage coming into the game. They ranked 126th overall, 102nd on offense, and 128th on defense last week. Even if FEI was severely overrating the Longhorns and Texas was merely an average FBS team, they still should have rolled to victory against the Jayhawks.
Never say never when it comes to college football. The Jayhawks drove 75 yards for touchdowns methodically on three of their first four possessions, then took advantage of a pair of turnovers late in the second quarter to spring open a 35-14 halftime lead. Texas rallied and scored five second-half touchdowns, but also surrendered two more long Kansas touchdown drives and never took full control of the game. The Longhorns were fortunate to force overtime, scoring on a short field with less than 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter to tie it up. Upsets come in all shapes and sizes, but an extended game with many possessions should typically vault the more talented team ahead in the end. Texas grabbed its only lead of the game at the start of overtime, the game’s 29th possession, before Kansas and Casey’s stunner handed them their fifth loss in a row.
We aren’t quite on pace for an historic total number of upsets this season, but we have had an unusual number of extreme upsets. Texas’ loss marked the third time in 2021 that a team favored by at least 30 points lost the game. Bowling Green upset Minnesota as a 30.5-point underdog in Week 4, and Louisiana-Monroe upset Liberty as a 32.5-point underdog in Week 7. We had only two upsets of that magnitude over the previous eight seasons combined. We have also already had more 20-plus-point underdogs win outright (seven) than in all but three of the last 14 seasons, and there are almost 200 games left to be played through the postseason.
Texas is clearly not the team FEI thought it was last month, and the loss dropped the Longhorns to 42nd overall this week while Kansas rose to 123rd. That is still a huge gap, and if they played again this weekend, FEI would give the Longhorns a 96.8% likelihood to win. No other upset since 2007 rates as unlikely as this one after the fact. UAB beat Southern Miss in 2011, a No. 113-over-No. 32 upset victory in terms of end-of-season FEI ratings and a retroactive win likelihood of only 4.8%. Syracuse over Clemson in 2017 (5.3% retroactive) and Illinois over Wisconsin in 2019 (7.0%) were the next least likely results.
Measuring the magnitude of an upset in terms of pre-game expectations is one thing, and Stanford-over-USC as a 39-point underdog in 2007 may never be topped. But retroactively, the end-of-year FEI ratings would give the Cardinal a 13.2% chance of repeating that feat against the Trojans. That game was a stunner, and 2021 Texas is certainly not 2007 USC (11-2, No. 8 in the final FEI ratings). But 2021 Kansas is nothing close to 2007 Stanford, either. Unless Texas continues its free fall or Kansas skyrockets in the coming weeks, Saturday night’s game may go down as the most entertaining and most retroactively surprising result of the FEI era.
2021 FEI Ratings (through Week 11)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Expanded ratings for all teams include overall, offense, defense, and special teams efficiency ratings. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS vs. FBS games.