Upset (competition)

An upset occurs in a competition, frequently in electoral politics or sports, when the party popularly expected to win (the "favorite"), either loses to or draws/ties a game with an underdog whom the majority expects to lose, defying the conventional wisdom. It is often used in reference to beating the betting odds in sports, or beating the opinion polls in electoral politics.


The meaning of the word has sometimes been erroneously attributed to the surprising defeat of the horse Man o' War by the horse Upset (the loss was the only one in Man o' War's career); the term pre-dates that 1919 race by at least several decades. In its sports coverage immediately following Upset's victory, the Washington Post wrote, "One might make all sorts of puns about it being an upset."

In 2002, George Thompson, a lexicographic researcher, used the full-text online search capabilities of The New York Times databases to trace the usage of the verb to upset and the noun upset. The latter was seen in usage as early as 1877.[1] Thompson's research debunked one popular theory of the term's origin, namely that it was first used after the Thoroughbred racehorse Upset became the only horse to defeat Man o' War in 1919.

The meaning of the word "upset" has long included "an overthrowing or overturn of ideas, plans, etc." (see OED definition 6b), from which the sports definition almost surely derived. "Upset" also once referred to "a curved part of a bridle-bit, fitting over the tongue of the horse", (now the port of a curb bit) and though the modern sports meaning of "upset" was first used far more for horse races than for any other competition, there is no evidence of a connection. The name of the horse "Upset" came from the "trouble" or "distress" meaning of word (as shown by the parallelism of the name of Upset's stablemate, Regret).

List of upsets

Below is a selection of major upsets from a variety of popular sports around the world. It is not meant to be comprehensive, merely representative.

American football
  • Heading into the 2007 college football season, the Michigan Wolverines were ranked as the pre-season #5 team, and among the favorites for that year's BCS National Championship. As an early season tune-up game, Michigan had booked the lower division Appalachian State Mountaineers for their first game of the season. The Mountaineers would surprise the football world as they led 28-17 at the half. Though Michigan would claw their way back to lead 32-31 late into the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers would kick a field goal with 26 seconds left in the game to take the lead 34-32. Michigan managed to use only 20 seconds of game time to drive the ball down to the App State 27-yard line, and as time was expiring the Mountaineers Corey Lynch blocked a Michigan field goal attempt to secure the upset for App State. The game marked only the second time, to that point, that a lower-division school had beaten a top-division AP-ranked team.[2]
  • In Super Bowl III, the senior National Football League was playing their third interleague championship game against the upstart American Football League. The NFL had won the prior two matchups without much difficulty, and it looked poised to do so again, as the Baltimore Colts, with a 13-1 record, behind quarterback Earl Morrall, who led the league in touchdown passes that season and was named NFL Most Valuable Player. The team also had several future Hall of Fame players on the roster, including quarterback Johnny Unitas, relegated to a back-up role following an early-season injury, tight end John Mackey, as well as a defense led by perennial all-pro Bubba Smith. The New York Jets were led by the brash Joe Namath at quarterback, who earlier in the week had "guaranteed" victory against the Colts. Namath's top target, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Don Maynard, was hobbled by an injury, but Namath led the Jets on a run-focused attack that leaned heavily on fullback Matt Snell, who ran for 121 yards and scored the Jets' only touchdown. The Jets defense confounded Morrall, who had only six completions on 17 attempts, with three interceptions in the first half, including a memorable interception to the Jets' Jim Hudson while Colts' star receiver Jimmy Orr, uncovered in the end zone, waved his hands to no avail. Colts' head coach Don Shula put the hobbled Unitas in the game in the second half, and despite a late game touchdown, would end up losing the game 16-7.[3]
Association football
  • A major upset in Spanish football was the so called Alcorconazo, when in the first leg of a 2009–10 Copa del Rey AD Alcorcón won over Real Madrid 4–0.[7] Real Madrid is one of the largest clubs in Spanish football and the world while Alcorcón team played in the third-tier Segunda División B. Because Real Madrid won the second leg only 1–0, Alcorcón advanced victorious to the next round. The half-time substitution of Guti when the score was 30 and when he was booked before was another topic in the Spanish press because of words exchanged between the player and his coach, Manuel Pellegrini.[8]
  • The 1906 World Series looked to be one of the most lopsided matchups in World Series history, as the National League powerhouse Chicago Cubs, with a record of 116–36 represented the best winning percentage in modern Major League Baseball history. They faced off against their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox, who finished with the American League pennant having a record of 93–58. The White Sox were dubbed the "hitless wonders" as their .230 team batting average was not only the worst batting average by a team to win their league pennant, it was the worst overall batting average in all of Major League Baseball that season. Buoyed by a pitching staff that held the Cubs to below 0.200 batting average for the series, the White Sox showed an uncharacteristic surge of batting prowess in games 5 and 6 with 16 runs on 26 hits over the two games to claim the World Series crown four games to two in what has been called the biggest upset in MLB history.[9]
  • Entering the first round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks had the best record in all of the NBA at 67-15, six games up on second place, while their first round opponent, the Golden State Warriors, had a 42-40 record and had only qualified for the tournament on the last day of the regular season, having needed to win all of their last five games just to qualify. Dallas was captained by power forward Dirk Nowitzki, who was in the midst of a Hall-of-Fame career that would feature 14 all star appearances, and supported by other star players such as Jason Terry, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris, and Josh Howard. Golden State had completely revamped their team mid-season, including two starters (Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington), who arrived in January in a blockbuster 8-player deal with the Indiana Pacers. Baron Davis was the unquestioned star of the playoff run, as he dominated the Mavericks, averaging 25.3 points, 6.5 assists, and 2.9 steals per game, as the Warriors would knock off the Mavericks four games to two.[11]
  • In the 1983 Cricket World Cup, the third edition of the tournament, the West Indies cricket team had won both of the previous two World Cups and looked poised to win their third. Their opponent in the finals, India, had never made it out of the group stage before 1983. India went to bat first, and managed 183 before being dismissed with five overs left. West Indies star batsman, Viv Richards, hit a hook towards the leg-side boundary, where Indian captain Kapil Dev made a difficult catch to retire the West Indies best batsman. Among the remaining batsman, only Jeff Dujon managed more than 20 runs, and West Indies were bowled out at 140, giving India their first World Cup.[12]

See also


  1. "Upset" Archived 2012-06-24 at the Wayback Machine at Retrieved April 17, 2013.
  2. Thomas, Ethan. "The Greatest Upsets in College Football History". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved 14 June 2021.
  3. "Top 10 Upsets in NFL History". Retrieved 14 June 2021.
  4. , 18 February 2017
  5. BBC Sport, 26 January 2013
  6. Johnson, Michael (7 January 2021). "What's the biggest FA Cup third-round giant killing?". Coral. Archived from the original on 8 January 2021. Retrieved 15 March 2021.
  7. Alcorconazo, El Paí (in Spanish), October 27, 2009
  8. Pellegrini y Guti discutieron en el descanso y el jugador mandó al técnico a tomar por el c*** (in Spanish), October 28, 2009
  9. Kelly, Matt (25 April 2020). "These are the biggest upsets in baseball history". Retrieved 11 June 2021.
  10. Wolken, Dan. "UMBC stuns Virginia to make NCAA tournament history as first No. 16 seed beat No. 1 seed". Retrieved 11 June 2021.
  11. Ungar, David. "10 Biggest Upsets in NBA Playoff History". Bleacher Report. Retrieved 14 June 2021.
  12. Lancaster, Rob. "20 Biggest Shocks in Cricket World Cup History". Bleacher Report. Retrieved 14 June 2021.