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The Panthers and the Hawkeyes: Why we love the underdog

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The start of college football - what a weekend.

There was no shortage of drama as the season began Thursday night with Boise State's drubbing of Oregon. 

Unfortunately for the Broncos, this game will always be remembered for Oregon tailback LeGarrette Blount dropping Boise State defensive end Byron Hout with a postgame punch to the face.

Saturday brought forth a number of upset bids, including Navy's plucky effort against Ohio State. But perhaps none compared to what transpired in Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes had to block two kicks to escape with a one-point victory over Northern Iowa.

It's not like the Panthers are pushovers. The FCS's fourth-ranked team, UNI is on par with Appalachian State, the program that upset then-No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor two seasons ago.

And it's not like the Hawkeyes are a top-five team. In fact, in this week's AP poll, they're not even a top-25 team.

But nonetheless, it is always fun to watch an FCS team attempt to upset one of their FBS brethren at their home field.  

In fact, any sports fan not affiliated with the University of Iowa - anyone who did not grow up rooting for Iowa or a non-native like yours truly - anyone without a vested interest in the Hawkeyes should have been rooting for the upset.

Why? Because upsets are vital to our lives as sports fans. They disrupt the status quo and make a mockery of 'what is supposed to happen.'

They send the polls into a tizzy and gives college football fans everywhere reason to call for the long-overdue abolishment of the Bowl Championship Series.

They inspire the Crash Davis-worthy cliché, 'that's why they play the game.'

It's no fun watching the team that's supposed to win always win. Real life is rarely that cut and dried. Things go wrong and plans don't work out. Upsets in sports help us make sense of the misfortune in our own lives.

With the exception of Patriots fans, no one wanted to see pretty boy Tom Brady, the guy with the golden right arm, movie star looks and supermodel girlfriend,m win the 2008 Super Bowl to cap a 19-0 season.

That isn't real life. No one person should be blessed with that much. If you have seen Jay Cutler with his helmet off, you know God usually is fair.

Upsets tap into our natural inclination to root for the underdog. Whether it is an entire team or just an individual player, being the underdog is a natural part of the human condition.

It is the ultimate David and Goliath story. Boise State, the tiny school from the WAC, has wreaked havoc on college football with its blue turf and BCS win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Last week, the Broncos did it again as they stunned Oregon, supposedly a powerhouse school from a powerhouse conference - whose former president David Frohnmeyer just happened to be the former chairman of the BCS presidential oversight committee.

Rooting for the underdog taps into each person's innermost fan. We root for the underdog because more of us can relate to the underdog than to the powerhouse.

Far more American men are blessed with the physical specifications of Wes Welker (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) than Randy Moss (6-foot-4, 210 pounds). 

There are for more "Rudy" Ruettigers than Joe Montanas on high school football teams nationwide - and even at Notre Dame.

Rudy's appeal is that he could be one of us - someone small in stature but with unmatched heart - that someone with that combination could still make it as a Notre Dame football player (which in those days still meant something).

We enjoy rooting for David Eckstein (5-foot-7) and Omar Vizquel (5-foot-9) and Jamie Moyer could be the dad in sweats at your Saturday morning soccer game instead of a World Series champion.

Northern Iowa's near upset of Iowa inspires the average athlete. If UNI can do it, maybe Le Mars Community can beat Western Christian in volleyball or boys basketball one day.  

And that is the beautiful thing about the underdog upset. The best team doesn't always win and we should embrace the times when they don't. 

It is what makes the games worth watching.

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