Sports

The biggest upsets of 2020

Just because this has been an exceptionally strange year in the world and in sports, doesn’t mean that there still haven’t been glorious upsets. In fact, results seem even more random because there isn’t the presence of nearly as much crowd noise, so road teams and underdogs perhaps have a better chance than usual. Before COVID upended the sports world, there were also some great upsets of a more “traditional” vintage. Crowds or no crowds, pre-COVID or post-COVID, let’s take a look at the biggest upsets of 2020, across all sports. 

 

1 of 25

Vikings stun Saints in NFC Playoffs

Elizabeth Flores, Tribune News Service, Elmira Star-Gazette via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Kirk Cousins has long had a reputation as someone who wilts under the brightest lights – see his mostly terrible record in prime time as evidence of this – and that fact, coupled with New Orleans being three games better than the Vikings heading into their wild-card round matchup, had most observers thinking that Minnesota was toast. The Saints were 7.5-point favorites, but they never got going and needed a 49-yard field goal just to force overtime. In the extra period, Minnesota left no doubt, with Kyle Rudolph catching the winning score. Cousins’ numbers weren’t exceptional, but for one game at least, he silenced his doubters. 

 

2 of 25

Titans, Henry bully top-seeded Ravens

Titans, Henry bully top-seeded Ravens

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore took the NFL by storm with their college-style offense in 2019, racking up the league’s best record at 14-2, and boasting the league MVP in Lamar Jackson. All those accolades meant nothing in the playoffs when the upstart Titans ambushed Baltimore in the divisional round. The Ravens were 10-point favorites but had no answers for Tennessee’s violent running attack. Derrick Henry rumbled for 195 yards on 30 carries, and Ryan Tannehill made the most of his seven completions, with two of them going for touchdowns. Oh, and Henry threw for a touchdown as well. It was a physically dominant, shocking win for Tennessee.

 

3 of 25

Wake Forest digs deep to down Duke

Wake Forest digs deep to down Duke

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone (except for Duke fans) likes it when the Blue Devils lose. It is even better when they lose to a bad team. Wake Forest certainly wasn’t anything special, coming into the game 11-15 when they played host to seventh-ranked Duke on February 25th. However, they went basket-for-basket with the Blue Devils, and the game ended up going to double overtime. Once things got that far, however, the Demon Deacons took over, outscoring Duke 16-4 in the second extra period to pull away for a 113-101 victory. Olivier Sarr paced Wake with 25 points, and Chaundee Brown added 24.

 

4 of 25

Canadiens send powerful Penguins packing

Canadiens send powerful Penguins packing

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The NHL bubble format allowed for a play-in round wherein the 5th through 12th-seeded teams in each conference played five-game series, with the four winning teams advancing to the start of the playoffs proper. Cynics noted that the strange format may have been implemented in part to accommodate Montreal and Chicago specifically, because of overall interest in the Canadiens, and better U.S. television ratings with the Blackhawks. Few, if any observers gave Montreal a chance, but the Canadiens were the better team almost the entire time, and bounced Pittsburgh in four games. 

 

Lowly Blackhawks dispatch Connor McDavid, Edmonton

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Like the Montreal Canadiens, the Chicago Blackhawks were given the side-eye by some NHL fans, who felt that the team’s strong following and presence in North America’s third-largest television market was the main reason that the league decided on its preliminary-round format. The Blackhawks made all of those naysayers – as well as the high-powered Oilers – look foolish by dispatching Edmonton in four games, alternately beating them in a high-scoring shootout in Game 1, and bouncing them from the bubble with a 3-2 win in Game 4. 

 

6 of 25

Somehow, some way, the Marlins make the playoffs

Somehow, some way, the Marlins make the playoffs

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Marlins are every baseball fan’s favorite punching bag. The team is poorly-run at the highest level, and even in non-pandemic times, typically plays in front of minuscule crowds. When they suffered a COVID-19 outbreak three games into the year that threatened not only their season but the entire MLB schedule, it seemed too on-brand to be true. The Marlins responded after a week away by winning five straight games, then somehow managing to sustain that momentum the rest of the way, finishing 31-29, good for the fifth-best record in the National League and a playoff berth.

 

7 of 25

Heat rout top-seeded Bucks on their way to NBA Finals

Heat rout top-seeded Bucks on their way to NBA Finals

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The balance of basketball power was in Los Angeles for the majority of the year, with the Clippers and Lakers strong candidates to take home the 2020 NBA title. However, neither team might have been the overall favorite; that designation could well have gone to the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA, at 56-17, featured Giannis Antetokounmpo, and were the East’s top seed. Milwaukee thrashed the Magic in five games in the first round, but their playoff run came to a crashing halt against the fifth-seeded Miami Heat. Miami won the first three games of their series, two of them by double-digits, and after an overtime loss in Game 4, closed out the Bucks in workmanlike fashion with a 103-94 win in Game 5. 

 

Connecticut Sun K.O. Los Angeles Sparks in WNBA playoff surprise

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Sparks were the third seed in the 2020 WNBA playoffs, and though the single-elimination format of the second round created unpredictability, they should have had little trouble dealing with a Sun team they had beaten twice during the regular season, averaging 80.5 points per game in the process. Unfortunately for L.A., their offense ran dry at the worst possible time, and DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas combined for 36 points to lead the Sun to a 73-59 win. 

 

9 of 25

Denver rallies from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Clippers

Denver rallies from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Clippers

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers were supposed to be the chief challengers to the Lakers in the Western Conference playoffs, and many felt they were the overall favorites to win the NBA title. They appeared to be handling things in a business-as-usual fashion against the Denver Nuggets, opening up a 3-1 lead in their second-round series. However, the Clippers failed to close the show, and Denver roared back to win three straight, including a stunning 104-89 rout in Game 7. 

 

Mike Leach introduces himself to the SEC

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Leach has his fans and his detractors, but regardless of how you feel about him, he tends to make headlines wherever he goes. That was the case in his debut at Mississippi State, which saw the Bulldogs shock sixth-ranked LSU, the defending national champions, 44-34. The win was stunning enough; Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello‘s performance was another incredible wrinkle to the story. Costello threw for an SEC-record 623 yards and five touchdowns in the win, and Leach’s presence was felt immediately in the conference. It wasn’t felt too much afterward, however; the Bulldogs finished just 3-7.

 

11 of 25

Minshew, Jaguars rally to take down Colts in season opener

Minshew, Jaguars rally to take down Colts in season opener

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, so at the time, this was a surprising result, but perhaps not a shocking upset. The Colts were seven-point favorites, but strange things can happen in season openers. Still, considering what’s happened to the Jaguars since, it’s safe to say that a team likely to end up with the first overall pick in the draft downing a near-surefire playoff team is a very surprising result indeed. Minshew brought the Jaguars back from a late 20-17 deficit with 10 points in the final 5:56, and Jacksonville got their season off on the right foot. That things proceeded on the wrong foot for months on end afterward? That just makes the result all the more unlikely.

 

12 of 25

Louisiana shocks Iowa State

Louisiana shocks Iowa State

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa State ended up having an impressive season; the Cyclones knocked off Oklahoma and Texas, and narrowly lost a rematch to the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game. That makes their season-opening loss to Louisiana all the more surprising. The Ragin’ Cajuns were well-regarded by some, but they still came into the game as an 11.5-point underdog. They certainly didn’t look like it, shutting out Iowa State after halftime and scoring 21 unanswered points to cruise to a 31-14 victory. 

 

13 of 25

Four-touchdown underdog Maryland humiliates Penn State

Four-touchdown underdog Maryland humiliates Penn State

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Terrapins were as much as a 27.5-point underdog heading into their matchup with the Nittany Lions, but when the teams took the field, it looked like that number should have been flipped. The Terps sprinted out to a 28-7 halftime lead, pushed the margin to 35-7 after three quarters before cruising to a 35-19 win. Taulia Tagovailoa – Tua’s little brother – threw for 282 yards and three touchdowns, and Maryland got just their third win in 44 tries against Penn State. The loss dropped James Franklin‘s team to 0-3 for the first time since 2001.

 

14 of 25

Bryson DeChambeau conquers Winged Foot and his doubters

Bryson DeChambeau conquers Winged Foot and his doubters

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This might be a stretch for some – when DeChambeau is playing well, few in the world are better – but given the consternation and hand-wringing from analysts about whether the long-hitting star’s “bomb and gouge” approach would work at a U.S. Open setup, DeChambeau’s victory was astonishing. He rendered the rough at Winged Foot obsolete, putted beautifully on comically fast, undulating greens, and never compromised his approach or blinked on Sunday. It was a clear victory for man (and science) over the course and the game’s established thinking, and in that way, a paradigm-shifting upset.

 

15 of 25

Raiders waltz into Arrowhead and rip the Chiefs

Raiders waltz into Arrowhead and rip the Chiefs

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City hasn’t dominated every opponent this season, but their incredible explosiveness has led to them acquiring an aura of invincibility. Surprisingly, Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders were the team to penetrate that aura, and at Arrowhead Stadium, no less. The Raiders entered the game as 11-point underdogs and never blinked, even when Kansas City opened up leads of 14-3 and 21-10. Las Vegas outscored the Chiefs 30-3 after Kansas City took their 21-10 lead, then held on after a late Chiefs touchdown to get one of the most surprising wins of the NFL season.

 

16 of 25

The Giants bottle up Russell Wilson and down the Seahawks

The Giants bottle up Russell Wilson and down the Seahawks

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle entered their game against the Giants in Week 13 of the NFL season as an 11-point favorite. The line made sense, too. Colt McCoy was starting for New York, in place of the injured Daniel Jones, and the Seahawks were at home. The game did not go to script. The Giants ran for 190 yards as a team, with Wayne Gallman getting 135 himself, and the Giants’ defense held Seattle without a touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter en route to a 17-12 victory.

 

17 of 25

Jalen Hurts’ first career start ends with upset of Saints

Jalen Hurts' first career start ends with upset of Saints

JOE LAMBERTI/USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Carson Wentz‘s disastrous 2020 was a major reason that the Eagles were 3-8-1 heading into their Week 14 showdown with the Saints. Wentz’s struggles became so pronounced that Philadelphia benched the former second overall pick in favor of 2020 second-rounder Jalen Hurts. New Orleans came into the game winners of nine straight and has held five straight opponents to 16 points or less. Hurts and the Eagles came into the game as nine- or ten-point underdogs in some places, but raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead, then held on in the second half for a 24-21 win.

 

Washington Football Team put an end to Steelers' 16-0 dreams

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh came into their game with Washington 11-0, having squeaked by a massively depleted Ravens team the week before. Still, they were nearly a double-digit favorite against Washington, and most observers expected the Steelers to handle the Football Team and ready themselves for a showdown with the Bills. Pittsburgh jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but then the wheels fell off, and Alex Smith and Washington outscored them 23-3 the rest of the way, including a bizarre sequence at the end of the first half where the officials had “administrative issues” and as a result, gave Washington a chance to get on the board with a field goal.

 

19 of 25

Depleted LSU triumphs over Florida

Depleted LSU triumphs over Florida

Brad McClenny via Imagn Content Services, LLC

LSU came into their matchup with seventh-ranked Florida at 3-5, and in no way resembling last year’s national champion. What’s more, the Tigers were ravaged by injuries and COVID-ineligible players and had only 54 scholarship players at the outset of the game. Still more important cogs were injured during the game, yet Cade York‘s 57-yard field goal with under 30 seconds left proved to be the winning margin in a 37-34 triumph. Despite that, this play (which made York’s kick possible) was all that most fans could talk about.

 

20 of 25

San Francisco dons upset hat, tops Virginia

San Francisco dons upset hat, tops Virginia

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco’s greatest triumphs in college basketball came back in 1955 and 1956 when Bill Russell led the program to back-to-back national championships. They added a nice feather in their cap with a 61-60 victory over fourth-ranked Virginia at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. The game was played on four days’ notice, with San Francisco agreeing to play during an airport layover, and happened just two days after the Dons had lost to UMass-Lowell. It was the first victory over a top-five team in program history.

 

21 of 25

Kentucky loses by double-digits to…Richmond?

Kentucky loses by double-digits to...Richmond?

Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Richmond isn’t a bad program, to be sure. The Spiders are a regular contender in the Atlantic 10, but they aren’t supposed to stroll into Rupp Arena and bludgeon a 10th-ranked Kentucky team. They also aren’t supposed to do it when they trail by four points at the half. That’s exactly what happened, however. Richmond outscored John Calipari‘s team 48-32 in the final 20 minutes and grabbed their first-ever road win against a top-10 opponent. Nathan Cayo and Blake Francis each had 18 points to pace the stunner. 

 

22 of 25

St. Francis shocks Pitt

St. Francis shocks Pitt

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Teams from the Northeast Conference are not supposed to beat teams from the ACC, but that’s exactly what happened when St. Francis (PA) beat Pitt on November 25th. The Red Flash dominated the first half, opening up a 46-33 advantage at the break, then cruised to a relatively easy 80-70 win, one in which the Panthers never made anything resembling a serious push. St. Francis entered the game 0-29 all-time against the Panthers, but they trailed for just 33 seconds, and once they took a 5-2 lead, led the rest of the way. 

 

23 of 25

Northwestern downs Michigan State

Northwestern downs Michigan State

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State entered their matchup against Big Ten foe Northwestern ranked fourth in the country, and boasting a 6-0 record, with wins over Notre Dame and Duke already on their ledger. That didn’t matter against the Wildcats, who beat Sparty for the first time since 2012. Boo Buie had 30 points in the game for Northwestern, which also notched its first win over a top-five team since beating – you guessed it – Magic Johnson and Michigan State in 1979.

 

24 of 25

Jets shock Rams, and make their fans angry as a result

Jets shock Rams, and make their fans angry as a result

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets can screw anything up, even tanking. How else to describe a 23-20 win that not only produced the biggest point-spread upset of the NFL season but more importantly knocked the Jets out of “first” place in the race for Trevor Lawrence. The Jets did it with defense and a successful early drive, one of the only things they’ve been good at all season, and they made it stand up. Of course, this understandably enraged their fans, who at least thought they’d get one of the best quarterback prospects in years in exchange for suffering through a historically bad season.

 

25 of 25

Bengals, third-stringer Ryan Finley stun Steelers

Bengals, third-stringer Ryan Finley stun Steelers

Kareem Elgazzar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Steelers were flagging a bit entering their Monday night showdown with the Bengals in Week 15. Despite an 11-2 record, Pittsburgh had lost two straight and looked bad doing so. Still, they were getting a Cincinnati team forced to start third-string quarterback Ryan Finley, so a get-well game seemed likely. The Bengals, 15-point underdogs in some places, had other plans. Cincy turned three first-half Steelers turnovers into a 17-0 lead at the break, then weathering an early push in the third quarter to win, 27-17. Finley even managed to score the winning touchdown on a zone read, with Pittsburgh’s entire defense completely fooled. 


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