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Michigan & USC Linked by More Than Just Historic Upsets

Michigan and USC have charted similar paths since each was on the wrong side of its own “upset of the century” seven years ago.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For reasons not entirely clear, Michigan opens its 2014 season against Appalachian State, needlessly rekindling memories of what was considered, for a month at least, the greatest upset in college football history.  The following weekend, the team challenging Michigan for that dubious honor, USC, faces the team that shocked it later that same season when it plays a Stanford team that has since had the Trojans' number more often than not.  It's been seven years since the 2007 college football season delivered two of the sport's greatest upsets, as Football Championship Subdivision-level Appalachian State beat pre-season top-five Michigan in September - in the Big House, no less - and a month later, an upstart, one-win Stanford Cardinal knocked off top-ranked and 41-point favorite USC 24-23 in a last-minute shocker at the Coliseum.  In many ways, neither team has been the same since.  As an alumnus of both schools, I have a unique perspective on these games and their impact.

Michigan entered the 2007 season with high hopes.  Coming off a season in which it started 11-0 and was ranked second in the nation as late as Thanksgiving weekend, the Wolverines returned a wealth of talent, including four-year, record-setting starters at quarterback and tailback.  The talk in Ann Arbor was of avenging the previous season's loss to Ohio State and returning to Pasadena, with national title aspirations not out of the question.  None of that would come to pass.  Instead, the 2007 season proved to be a turning point for the Wolverines, and is remembered not only for the historic loss to Appalachian State, but also as Lloyd Carr's final season and the year Mike Hart shouted the familial insult heard around the world - or at least across the state.  In the seven years since, the Wolverines have gone through two coaching changes, seen the their NCAA-record consecutive bowl streak snapped and have not only lost the conference to Ohio State, but the state to Michigan State.  Heading into the 2014 season, a team that once had perennial national title aspirations is simply hoping to show improvement while its young team matures.

USC's fall has been no less dramatic, if not as immediate.  While the Trojans went on to capture conference titles and secure top five finishes in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, capping off a historic run of seven consecutive top five finishes, the team that spent the better part of the previous decade as college football's glamour team has been on a downward slide since.  While still firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the college football world, USC hasn't seriously challenged for the Pac 12 title in five years, while Oregon and Stanford have emerged to become Rose Bowl staples.  And as if that weren't enough, much like the relationship between Michigan and Michigan State, USC finds itself in the unfamiliar - and unappealing - position of looking up at crosstown rival UCLA in the standings and rankings.

You could argue that the NCAA sanctions with which Pete Carroll left the Trojans had more to do with USC's difficulties than did a regular season loss in an 11-win, Rose Bowl season, and you wouldn't necessarily be wrong.  But that loss to lowly, pre-Andrew Luck Stanford was symbolic if not significant, as it cracked the Trojans' air of invincibility.  And while changes in coaching and philosophy have had more to do with Michigan's downfall than did a season-opening non-conference game, losing to Appalachian State nonetheless severely tarnished Michigan's mystique.

As Michigan enters the fourth year of the Brady Hoke era, the Wolverines - along with the Wolverine faithful - are hoping to see signs of Hoke's recruiting success translate to success on the field.  Still young along the interior, many see Michigan as at least a year away from being the team it wants to be - one that controls the line of scrimmage, not the one that seemed to have had trouble finding the line of scrimmage last season.  For USC, talent has never been an issue.  Results, however, have been another story.  After spending the past few seasons watching talented teams ultimately come apart under Lane Kiffin, the Trojan faithful are hoping that new coach Steve Sarkisian brings consistency and discipline to the Trojans in a season that begins with Oregon, Stanford and UCLA as conference favorites.

Seven years after two of college football's most successful programs fell in historic upsets, each enters the season not with hopes of claiming a spot in college football's first playoff as much as simply improving its play.  Michigan and USC both believe they are on the right track, and while avenging their respective 2007 upsets won't determine if they are, improved play over the course of the season will go a long way toward doing so.