Scott Fowler

If Charlotte 49ers beat Clemson, it will be college football’s greatest upset ever

The Charlotte 49ers will tiptoe into the darkness of the Tiger’s den Saturday night, trying not to look too nervous as they survey 81,000 people screaming for their blood.

Clemson is ranked No. 1. Clemson won the national championship game last season — by 28 points over Alabama. Clemson is undefeated, untied and unbelievably good.

And the 49ers? They are underdogs by 42 points in this nationally televised game (7:30 p.m., ACC Network).

But the 49ers also have a chance — slim as it may be — at what would be the biggest upset in college football history.

Oh no, you say — Appalachian State beating Michigan on the road in 2007 would top this.

No, it wouldn’t. Appalachian, although playing in a lower division at the time, was only a 33-point underdog. App State was coming off two straight FCS national championships and about to win a third.

Michigan, although ranked No. 5 at the time, would finish that 2007 season 9-4 and ranked No. 18. Armanti Edwards, the Mountaineers’ quarterback, became a third-round NFL draft pick (by the Carolina Panthers, who tried unsuccessfully to convert him to an NFL-caliber wide receiver, but that’s another story).

App State-Michigan was an enormous upset, for sure, and one of the greatest moments in the history of football in the Carolinas. But this would be bigger.

Charlotte is 2-1 and has only a few players — running back Benny LeMay and defensive end Alex Highsmith come to mind — who could get on the field for Clemson.

The 49ers also have a dynamic, 34-year-old coach named Will Healy, a Dabo Swinney wannabe who is a rising star. They have a 47.3-point scoring average. They have some players who publicly believe this could happen. Charlotte defensive back Jacione Fugate, for instance, called the 42-point spread in this game “very disrespectful” this week and said the 49ers were “ready to shock the world” vs. Clemson.

Dabo-Clemson
Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has won two national championships in the past three years with the Tigers. Charlotte 49ers coach Will Healy is largely trying to model his program on Clemson’s. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Clemson, though, has everything else: Five-star athletes at every position. An 18-game winning streak. The best homefield advantage in football. The actual Dabo Swinney. And an NFL-ready quarterback in Trevor Lawrence.

“You hope Trevor is off,” Healy said jokingly of Saturday night’s game when asked how to stop Clemson’s offense. “Either that, or maybe he just takes the week off — one of the two.”

This could be David with his five smooth stones, loading up a slingshot as he tries to slay Goliath and inspire Michelangelo.

Or, more likely, this is a mismatch of the highest order. The Tigers will win something like 59-10 and the 49ers will hope to get out of there without getting too many players hurt before the Conference USA season starts and their competition returns to a more realistic level.

Still, the opportunity is magnificent.

Many people nationwide don’t even know the Charlotte 49ers football program exists. It is still a toddler in terms of national recognition; the visibility offered by this game will be unparalleled for the team.

Said Healy: “I don’t know if you can put a price tag on what it does for your program and your university. I mean this entire week — whether on the ACC Network or ESPN — people are going to know about Charlotte football. So now it’s up to us to put on a great brand of football on the field and be competitive. ... You’ve got to get over this awe of the Tiger paw and Dabo and Trevor Lawrence and all of these things.”

Charlotte has never played a Top 10 team before, much less the America’s No. 1 team. The 49ers want to win, but Healy is also being careful to set some manageable goals.

IMG_Charlotte_49ers_vs_F_2_1_5VEQKBFB_L431448337 (1).JPG
Benny LeMay has rushed for more than 100 yards in all three of the Charlotte 49ers’ games and scored five touchdowns so far this season. Benjamin Robson

For instance, Healy said one of those goals was: “At some point in time, let’s get them to punt the football to us … To me your goal is, let’s stay in there as long as we can, and let’s see what happens.”

Technically, if the 49ers did beat Clemson, it wouldn’t be the biggest upset in modern college football history in terms of point spread. Cam Newton’s younger brother, Caylin Newton, led 45-point underdog Howard to a 43-40 win over Nevada-Las Vegas in 2017.

But UNLV wasn’t No. 1. Clemson is. Although LeMay points out the Tigers certainly aren’t “the New England Patriots,” Charlotte’s task Saturday night is similar to trying to climb Mount Everest in gym shorts.

But there’s always that “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?!” line from “Dumb and Dumber.” There’s always a glimmer of hope in sports.

And every now and then, No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County beats No. 1 seed Virginia. I was there the night that happened, and I will never forget it.

Whatever happens Saturday night, the 49ers won’t forget, either.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”
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