The longest win streak in college football doesn't belong to traditional powerhouses like Georgia, Ohio State or Michigan. Instead, head to Pittsburgh.
With a walk up a short hill on Forbes Avenue, you'll find Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a Division III school that has won NCAA-leading 16 straight games, the most across all divisions.
CMU is on an impressive run, clinching back-to-back NCAA playoff berths for the first time since 1978-79 with a game left to play. Here's some insight into this year's Tartans and how they've come together for a special run to the nation's longest win streak.
Carnegie Mellon isn't a school known for its dominance on the gridiron. CMU is known for its academic prestige, ranking No. 22 overall in US News' latest rankings, with the No. 1 computer science, No. 5 business and No. 7 engineering programs.
Full disclosure: I played cornerback at Carnegie-Mellon for five years while getting a professional writing degree. As an alum, I've been asked more about the institution's relation to New York City's Carnegie Hall (both owe their name to founder Andrew Carnegie) than the football program itself, despite a storied history that includes a shutout win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and more.
While CMU football doesn't earn the national attention of the school's academics, the Tartans consistently produce All-American players and have had only two losing seasons in the last 45 years. Now the Tartans have the longest win streak in all of college football.
Understanding the streak
CMU's win streak dates back to the 2021 fall season, when the Tartans won their final seven games to clinch a President's Athletic Conference (PAC) title and a berth to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2006. Unfortunately, CMU wasn't able to play in the postseason due to COVID-19, leading the first round playoff game to be declared no contest.
After missing out on the playoffs, the Tartans picked up in 2022 where they left off, and have started the season undefeated at 9-0. In total, CMU has won 16 straight games, four more than any other program at any other level of NCAA football entering the second weekend of November.
|Carnegie Mellon||DIII||16 games|
An unexpected rise
CMU wasn't supposed to have the longest win streak in the country in 2022. Not after failing to play in the postseason. Not with legendary head coach Richard Lackner retiring after last season. Not with head coach Ryan Larsen replacing the legend as a first-time head coach. Not after being picked to finish third by the preseason PAC poll.
No one expected the Tartans to be here.
"It definitely added a chip on our shoulder and made us want to prove something," junior linebacker Thomas Coury said. "It didn't change much, just added to that fire a little bit."
The new head coach
CMU entered the 2022 season with Ryan Larsen taking over for 36-year head coach Richard Lackner. Larsen replaced a legend in the program that has the most wins of any coach in school history and earned AFCA Coach of the Year honors in his final season.
"I don't think there was any more pressure than probably what I put on myself," Larsen said. "It's humbling to know that there is an expectation and something that's kind of expected out of this position. With the success that we had at the end of last year, I think you start to say, 'What can we do to build on that?' The beauty of it is that there was a great foundation. A winning foundation."
Larsen got buy-in from his players, with leaders like senior safety Aryan Hegde quickly adjusting to the new head coach.
"Coach Larsen has done a great job of coming in and finding that perfect medium. He's continued to build on that culture and he's done a great job of making that transition really smooth," Hegde said.
Larsen's motto — C.O.D.E. — stands for commitment, ownership, discipline and effort. His focus is for the team to go 1-0 every week, a humble mindset for a program with the longest win streak in the NCAA. It wasn't until after CMU won its ninth game of 2022 against Saint Vincent that Larsen said the word "undefeated" to his team. For most of the season, he hasn't outwardly acknowledged the win streak.
"Seven games of that streak were last year. I have zero ownership of that. I wasn't involved with half of it, but that half of it set a great foundation for this year," Larsen said. "It goes back to that 1-0 mentality. Being focused on the present and what we can do week in and week out to be the best football program we can be is our focus."
Larsen's 1-0 goal and mindset carries down through the coaching staff and the players.
"Coach Larsen always talks about going 1-0 and I think our players have really bought into that," said defensive coordinator Ben Gibboney. "None of [the accolades or streaks] matter if you don't take care of the business that you need to take care of that week. The goal is to go 1-0 every week, and if you do that, you get to chase some other goals."
Some of those "other goals" include the PAC championship, which the Tartans have clinched with a game to play, and postseason success. As the saying goes, "defense wins championships," and under Larsen and Gibboney, CMU's defense has played at a championship level.
A championship-winning defense
The Tartans lead the nation with 20 interceptions, have the 15th-best scoring defense and only allow 70 rushing yards per game. It's been a team effort, with a player earning PAC Defensive Player of the Week honors six times in nine games.
"We're fortunate to have some really good players at all three levels of our defense. These players know what they're supposed to do, and they work their tails off to make sure they do it," Gibboney said.
CMU's defensive success has surpassed external expectations, just like the win streak. The Tartans had key losses in the secondary entering this year and saw their top returning cornerback Kevin Arcia face injuries during the year. That meant a young group on the backend of the defense, but with veteran leadership from Hegde, the secondary hasn't missed a beat.
As we head into the final week of football season and the 36th Annual Academic Bowl, take a look at highlights from #19 @TartanFB win on homecoming over Saint Vincent. #TartanProud #d3fb @CarnegieMellon @PAC_Athletics @D3FBHuddle pic.twitter.com/U76DAyB6xu— Carnegie Mellon Athletics (@tartanathletics) November 8, 2022
"It starts at the top. Coach Gibboney is one of the best. How he gets us prepared each week is how we're able to play the way we are," Hegde said. "We've had a lot of young guys step up, gaining confidence throughout the year. I've just been able to lead that group, keep the secondary strong and make sure we're on the same page."
CMU's defense has built a brotherhood that has led it to success, regardless of injuries or inexperience. There's no better example of that brotherhood than the Coury twins in the linebacker corps. Robert and Thomas lead the team in tackles, respectively. The twins are some of the best players in the conference, with Thomas expressing his desire for his brother to win PAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-American honors after leading one of the best defenses in the country.
"Robert takes a big lead over our defense and leads the guys. It's a blessing to be able to play with my brother along with the other guys. I think we all feel the love for each other and trust for each other," Thomas said. "It's pretty incredible that we've got a bunch of playmakers on our team. This defense is hungry to succeed and very talented as well."
It's more than talent that makes this Tartan defense special. It's things like effort and running to the ball that flows through the veins of one of the best defenses in DIII.
"The last slide that we show in our team meetings says culture over scheme," Gibboney said. "The culture of how you play — focusing on being a physical defense and being disciplined in your assignment — that takes care of a lot of it."
"Coach Gibboney has instilled that mindset in us that we're wild dogs; he says it all the time. We've got to play as a pack, play as wild dogs," Coury said. "To just always be on the hunt, always be violent, always be relentless...that's our mindset defensively."
The rivalry up next
The nation's longest win streak will be put to the test on Nov. 12 when Carnegie Mellon faces Case Western in the Academic Bowl. It's been five years since the Tartans have lost to the Spartans, but in the Academic Bowl, anything can happen — I'd know from first-hand experience.
In recent years, CMU or Case Western have had the chance to play spoiler in the rivalry with conference championship or playoff positioning at stake. This year the Spartans will attempt to spoil an undefeated regular season at CMU.
Larsen is going for just the second undefeated season of his career as a player or coach (dating back to when he was in fifth grade) and knows the importance of this rivalry game in his first year at CMU.
"I'm going to enjoy some of this," Larsen said. "I think that rivalries are what makes sports so unique and so different. It doesn't really matter what rivalry you're in, it's special wherever you are."
Larsen has put the Academic Bowl trophy — the hardware is passed between the winning team year after year — at the 50-yard line every day during practice this week to motivate the team. As the Tartans go through drills and repetitions, they'll have a visual of what's at stake right in front of them.
"We know what's at stake, but we're going to treat it like any other game," Coury said. "We love those high-pressure situations; we love being able to succeed in important games in November."
Despite owning the nation's longest win streak and winning back-to-back PAC titles, there's a sense at CMU that there's unfinished business. First, the Tartans must beat Case Western to push the win streak to 17 games. However, even with the win streak, the Tartans aren't ranked in the top 10 nationally. After missing out on a playoff opportunity last year, CMU wants to take the next step to be considered a national contender and knows it has more to accomplish.
"One thing we say all the time as a team is we haven't accomplished anything yet," Hegde said. "This undefeated record doesn't matter if we don't do our job. If we don't take each opponent seriously, we could drop one of these games. It's a tactic each week, week by week, to not look too far in advance or look in the past. We just stay in the moment and focus on the opponent at hand."
CMU isn't overlooking Case Western with one game to play, despite knowing its name is in the DIII football playoff selection show. CMU would love to enter the playoffs undefeated, continuing the nation's longest win streak. Once in the playoffs, the Tartans will go for their fourth-ever playoff win (1978, 1979 and 2006). To do so, it'll only require CMU to go 1-0 for another week.
"We don't have to do anything special. We don't have to do anything different. We don't have to change our mentality. It all goes back to being 1-0," Larsen said.