Commentary

Sprinting through scores of comebacks

Originally Published: September 13, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where no score is final until the league office has its say. (Average wait time: two hours.)

Sooners and Seminoles are clashing. Bulldogs backers are coach-bashing. War Eagles are crashing. Time to get Dashing.

Southern scoreboard watching

If you thought players were finding their way to the end zone more often in 2011 than they did in 2010, congratulations. You are officially an astute observer.

[+] EnlargeAce Sanders
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireAce Sanders is one of South Carolina's special teams stars.

Scoring is up in college football -- there are 35 teams currently averaging 40 or more points per game, compared to 24 at that level after two weeks last season. And nowhere is point inflation higher than in the Southeastern Conference (1).

You thought America's best conference was all about defense? After watching the first two league games of the season produce a combined 162 points -- Auburn over Mississippi State 41-34, South Carolina over Georgia 45-42 -- think again. Last year those two early September games produced a total of 54 points.

In 2010, the SEC had just one team averaging 40 after two games. That was Kentucky, which now misses Randall Cobb acutely (the Wildcats are down from 43 ppg to an SEC-low 20.5).

This year the league has seven 40-point scorers:

Arkansas (2) is up from 37.5 to a league-high 51.5. The reason: It's year four under Bobby Petrino, which means its time for the offense to hit full stride. Not even losing quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL and running back Knile Davis to an injury have slowed the Razorbacks yet this year, thanks in large part to a running game pounding out 181 yards per game and arguably America's best receiving corps. A productive kick-return game has helped with field position.

South Carolina (3) has vaulted from 29.5 to 50.5. The reason: Special teams and defense have certainly helped. The Gamecocks have scored on a punt return, a fake punt and a fumble return this season, which helps explain how they can rank 75th nationally in total offense and fourth in scoring.

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireVick Ballard and Chris Relf have powered Mississippi State's offense.

Mississippi State (4) has gone from 31.5 to 46.5. The reason: The Bulldogs have a dynamic running combination in Vick Ballard and quarterback Chris Relf, who has improved his passing as well. They've also played two pliable defenses (Memphis and Auburn) and scored one defensive touchdown to date.

LSU (5) has risen from 28.5 to 44.5. The reason: It sure isn't offensive explosiveness, since the Tigers are 89th nationally in total offense. But they win the field-position battle with defense, punting and turnovers, which sets up a methodical running game and keeps the pressure off QB Jarrett Lee.

Tennessee (6) has jumped from 31.5 to 43.5. The reason: Playing Cincinnati instead of Oregon sure hasn't hurt. But the Volunteers also started this season with the right quarterback (Tyler Bray) after floundering around with Matt Simms for the early part of 2010. Bray is lighting it up so far.

Auburn (7) is up from 34.5 to 41.5. The reason: The remarkably resilient Tigers have done it with mirrors much of the time -- a kickoff return touchdown here, an interception return touchdown there, a memorable onside kick recovery, too. Throw in some intermittent big plays and the pounding runs of Michael Dyer, and Auburn is actually scoring more right now than it did two games into the Cam Newton Victory Tour.

The only bad news at Auburn on Saturday was bird-related. The school's eagle mascot, Spirit, took a "Wrong Way" Corrigan turn and slammed into the windows of a Jordan-Hare luxury suite on his pregame circling of the field. Rumors that the critter indulged in excessive tailgating before taking flight are unconfirmed. Spirit was not listed on the team's weekly injury report, but The Dash did seek out comment.

[+] EnlargeSpirit
John Reed/US PresswireSpirit's pregame trip took an unexpected detour Saturday.

"Spirit is fine," said Mike Clardy, director of university communications. "We are not sure why he took a detour into the suite, but even though he lives in captivity, we have to remember he is still a wild bird. Our veterinarian gave him a once-over after the flight and did not see anything out of the ordinary. He's a tough one!"

Also, one of the two concrete eagle statues at Toomer's Corner was de-beaked in recent days, according to the War Eagle Reader website, with the beak found on the sidewalk beneath the statue. Hasn't Toomer's Corner suffered enough?

Florida (8) has gone from 36 to 40. The reason: The Gators' first two opponents have been awful (Florida Atlantic and UAB) as opposed to two eventual bowl teams in 2010 (Miami of Ohio and South Florida). There have been a blocked punt for a touchdown and a safety, too. But it's more than that: quarterback John Brantley and running backs Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps appear to be meshing well with the schemes of new coordinator Charlie Weis.

Despite all those upgrades, the biggest riser in the league in scoring is none of the above. It's Vanderbilt (9), elevating from 12 points per game through two games last year to 34.5 this year. In their two games, the Commodores haven't driven the ball longer than 46 yards after the first quarter. But they've gotten a pair of pick sixes and are plus-four in turnover margin, which has helped camouflage some offensive shortcomings.

Go ahead, call it a comeback

In trying to explain Michigan's crazy comeback Saturday night against Notre Dame, quarterback Denard Robinson said multiple times: "We ain't stopping till the clock says zero-zero." Those are words to live and play by, because now more than ever it seems that no lead is safe and no deficit too deep in college football. We've already had half a dozen remarkable rallies in games that seemed over, plus many other lesser comebacks. The Dash's list of the best after only two weeks:

Michigan (10) against Notre Dame, Sept. 10
On a scale of 1-to-Lazarus: Give it a Joe Montana (or a 9).
How deep was the hole: The Wolverines trailed 24-7 entering the fourth quarter, then trailed again 31-28 with 30 seconds left. They won 35-31 on a touchdown pass with two seconds left.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Denard Robinson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson and the Wolverines celebrate an amazing fourth-quarter comeback. Robinson passed for 338 yards, four TDs and three interceptions against Notre Dame.
How they dug out: A lucky bounce, some Irish breakdowns and a whole lot of Shoelace. On the first play of the quarter, a dive play near the Notre Dame goal line resulted in a fumble that magically squirted out of the pile and fell at Robinson's feet, where he picked it up and ran it in unmolested. After a terrible punt, Robinson led a five-play touchdown drive. Following an exchange of red-zone turnovers, Robinson orchestrated a five-play, 58-yard drive for a 28-24 lead. When the Irish answered in four plays, Robinson was left with 80 yards to go in 30 seconds. He did it in 28, in large part thanks to a busted coverage that helped produce a 64-yard completion.

Auburn against Utah State, Sept. 3
On a scale of 1-to-Lazarus: Give it a Richard Nixon (or a 7).
How deep was the hole: Fourteen points early and 10 points late.
How they dug out: Trailing 38-28 with 3:30 left, Barrett Trotter completed six of his final eight passes on two scoring drives for a 42-38 victory that kept alive the nation's longest winning streak. But the biggest play came between those drives, when a perfect Auburn onside kick set up the winning score.

TCU (11) against Baylor, Sept. 2
On a scale of 1-to-Lazarus: Give it a Frank Reich (or a 6.5).
How deep was the hole: The Horned Frogs trailed 47-23 entering the final quarter -- on the road, with a first-time starting quarterback.
How they dug out: This would be the Comeback of the Year if TCU had finished it. Unfortunately for the Frogs, they scored their 25 fourth-quarter points too fast -- they left Baylor time to come back and kick the winning field goal with 1:04 left. Prior to that, new starting QB Casey Pachall was on the verge of hero status. He overcame leg cramps to throw for three touchdowns in the final quarter -- but he also threw an interception in the final seconds that ended TCU's chances.

Indiana (12) against Virginia, Sept. 10
On a scale of 1-to-Lazarus: Give it a Betty White (or a 6).
How deep was the hole: The Hoosiers were down 23-3 in the third quarter.
How they dug out: Indiana scored 28 points in 17½ minutes, roaring to a 31-23 lead. It sandwiched a couple of long drives around two Virginia fumbles, riding the arm and legs of dual-threat quarterback Edward Wright-Baker. But the game didn't end there.

Virginia (13) against Indiana, Sept. 10
On a scale of 1-to-Lazarus: Give it a Pete Carroll (or a 5.5).
How deep was the hole: The Cavaliers trailed 31-23 with less than 100 seconds remaining.
How they dug out: A long drive culminated in a short Perry Jones touchdown run, and a two-point conversion tied the game with 1:36 left. Three plays later, Cam Johnson forced a fumble from Wright-Baker and recovered it himself at the Indiana 14-yard line. Virginia kicked the winning field goal on the final snap.

Syracuse (14) against Wake Forest, Sept. 1
On a scale of 1-to-Lazarus: Give it a Tina Turner (or a 5).
How deep was the hole: The Orange trailed 29-14 with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.
How they dug out: Syracuse knocked out Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price, who had been carving up the Orange defense, then scored the game's last 22 points. Syracuse held the Demon Deacons and backup QB Ted Stachitas to 30 yards on their final four possessions and forced a turnover before winning in overtime, 36-29.

Other potential comebacks

Ten rally acts to keep an eye on as the season progresses:

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGeorgia coach Mark Richt is taking heat in Athens for his 0-2 start.

Mark Richt (15). No coach is taking a bigger beating from fans than Richt, the one-time savior at Georgia who is being pilloried for the Bulldogs' 0-2 start and 14-14 record since 2008. It would be nice if the fans would let him up and let him breathe, because losing to Boise State (Bus) and South Carolina is no shame at all. And the schedule gets radically easier from here on out. If Richt can end a three-year losing streak to rival Florida and win out between the hedges, it will be tough to get rid of a guy with more than 100 career victories at Georgia.

Washington State (16). The Cougars are averaging a surreal 61.5 points per game, best in the nation -- and that's after losing starting quarterback Jeff Tuel to injury in the opener. How big a departure is that from what has become the norm for Wazzu? It took the Cougs four games to score more than 61 points total last year. Paul Wulff is now 7-32 as coach at Washington State; if he can improve his road record (1-16) in the coming weeks the Cougars could go bowling for the first time since 2003.

Florida-Tennessee (17). For much of the 1990s, this was the marquee regular-season game in the SEC. Spurrier vs. Fulmer, Wuerffel vs. Manning, one national title apiece (1996 for the Gators, '98 for the Volunteers). Tennessee hasn't kept up its end of the bargain lately, losing six straight to Florida and slipping out of the league's elite. But the game could matter again as soon as Saturday, when they meet in The Swamp. Vols fans are feeling optimistic, and the Gators look ready to rebound from last year's 8-5 pratfall.

Florida State (18). The Seminoles were annual national title contenders from 1987-2000, but they've lost four or more games in each of the past six years. For their own honor and that of the maligned Atlantic Coast Conference, FSU's comeback story could really use an upset of No. 1 Oklahoma on Saturday in Tallahassee. Beating up on Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern has fans Tomahawk Chopping with anticipation for the Sooners, but The Dash believes there's still a gap between the elite and Florida State. For now.

Big Game Bob (19). If the Seminoles don't start their comeback Saturday, Bob Stoops will start his. The Oklahoma coach started his career 9-2 against top-10 opponents but is only 4-7 since then, dating to a humiliating loss to USC in the 2004 Orange Bowl. Beating Florida State on the road (where the Sooners have been just 15-10 since 2005) could reverse that trend.

Jacory Harris (20). The Miami quarterback has been hailed as a Heisman Trophy candidate and hammered as a turnover machine. Lately he's been part of the Nevin Shapiro problem at Miami, suspended for the Hurricanes' season-opening loss to Maryland. He'll be back in the starting lineup Saturday when Ohio State visits. New coach Al Golden desperately hopes he gets the Big-Play Jacory, not the Mistake-Prone Jacory.

Notre Dame (21). The Fighting Irish are simply too talented to keep losing, unless they persist in beating themselves. Last in the nation in turnover margin, they can beat Michigan State on Saturday and peel off nine straight victories if they clean up that stat. If they don't, Brian Kelly will spontaneously combust on the sideline.

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireCase Keenum is attacking the NCAA record books in his sixth season at Houston.

The winning coach in Champaign (22) this weekend. When Dennis Erickson of Arizona State and Ron Zook of Illinois get together Saturday, they can discuss the relative heat of their seats. Erickson, a middling 25-24 in four years with the Sun Devils, and Zook, a lousy 28-45 in six years with the Illini, were among the most endangered coaches in the country heading into the season. But the winner will be 3-0 and feeling pretty good about a bounce-back season that could save his job.

Case Keenum (23). The Houston Cougars quarterback missed almost all of last season with an injury, but he was granted a sixth year of eligibility and is mounting an assault on the NCAA's career passing yardage record. Keenum has thrown for 768 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions in two Houston victories, as the Cougars appear well on their way back to a bowl game after going 5-7 last year without Keenum.

McCoy-to-Shipley (24). The most prolific pass-and-catch tandem in Texas history was Colt McCoy to Jordan Shipley. Now that they're in the NFL, Longhorns fans are hoping the team's dormant offense can be revived by the tandem's little brothers. Case McCoy had two big completions to Jaxon Shipley on the game-winning drive Saturday against BYU. Expect more to come from those two.

[+] EnlargeLeila Lopes
AP Photo/Andre PennerLeila Lopes knows how to rally.

And a bonus comeback: Dashette Leila Lopes (25). Miss Angola had to rally after low audience scores in the swimsuit competition, but finished strong to be crowned Miss Universe Monday night.

Receiverland

The one non-quarterback position that looks most flush with talent nationally is wide receiver. There are big guys, fast guys, athletic guys and versatile guys across the country. The five most impressive so far:

Michael Floyd (26), Notre Dame. His team is 0-2, but it sure isn't Floyd's fault. He's hard to cover and even harder to tackle, having racked up 43 percent of the Irish's catches (25) and 40 percent of their touchdown receptions (two).

[+] EnlargeT.Y. Hilton
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireT.Y. Hilton has put the Panthers on the board early and often this season.

T.Y. Hilton (27), Florida International. FIU mounted a Heisman Trophy campaign for Hilton, and it no longer seems like a waste of time and effort. He's been sensational as a receiver and return man for the 2-0 Golden Panthers, ranking second nationally in all-purpose yards with 275.5 per game. Hilton lit up Louisville for 201 receiving yards and two touchdowns last week and is averaging 23.8 yards per reception.

Robert Woods (28), USC. The sophomore had 17 catches for 177 yards against Minnesota, scoring all three of the Trojans' touchdowns to almost single-handedly stave off an upset. Then Woods backed that up with another eight catches for 102 yards Saturday against Utah.

Justin Blackmon (29), Oklahoma State. Ran his streak of 100-yard receiving games to 14 last week, and has 20 catches for 272 yards and two TDs this season. He's the best weapon on what might be the most explosive offense in the country.

Ryan Broyles (30), Oklahoma. The Sooners have played only one game in 2011, but Broyles had 14 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown in it. He's now caught a whopping 280 career passes. His presumed matchup with FSU cornerback Greg Reid on Saturday could be the highlight of that game.

Kicker follies

What began in Week 1 with the one-yard onside kick flub by SMU continued in Week 2. The crimes against special teams last Saturday:

• A second one-yard onside attempt, this time from Norfolk State (31) against West Virginia. The Spartans attempted the onside after a 50-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead, which was pretty much a penthouse-to-outhouse trip for kicker Everett Goldberg.

• A negative punt from Oregon State's Johnny Hekker (32). In a play that will be a first ballot Dash Hall of Fame moment, Hekker shanked a rugby punt that never went past the line of scrimmage, going out of bounds for a four-yard loss. If the 0-2 Beavers continue on their current pace, they should just run that punt on a continuous loop for the season highlight video.

Speaking of miserable …

[+] EnlargePorter
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireLarry Porter's Memphis team has struggled out of the gates.

Oregon State looks like Oklahoma compared to the train wrecks at Memphis (33) and UNLV (34). These have never been great football schools, and rarely has either even been good. But right now they are simply awful, and despite being from semi-respectable leagues (Conference USA and Mountain West, respectively), they're keeping company with the worst in the Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt.

The Rebels are really bad, following up a 34-point loss to Wisconsin with a 52-point beatdown from Washington State. They haven't scored an offensive touchdown in the first half and haven't scored a touchdown of any kind until after giving up 50-plus points in a game.

But the Tigers are worse. On Saturday they lost 47-3 to Arkansas State. That's Arkansas State, not Arkansas. Arkansas State had never beaten an FBS opponent by 44 points until Saturday, but they had their 47 points on the board in just three quarters. Jeff Sagarin's computer ranks Memphis 178th, lowest of any FBS team.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

David Bennett (35) of Coastal Carolina. The Dash has no idea whether Bennett is a good coach, although his 58-35 record at the school suggests he is. But what earns him this award -- if the Coastal Carolina head coach actually gets a comp car -- was this extemporaneous dissertation on dogs and cats.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Danny Hope (36), Purdue. Nobody has had worse injury luck the past year-plus than the Boilermakers -- but that still doesn't excuse losing to Rice. Especially when Purdue had to rally to beat Middle Tennessee in the opener. The Boilers have led for just 15½ minutes thus far this season.

Literary corner

The Dash was dealt a new book in Michigan Stadium on Saturday night, written by veteran Wolverines observer John U. Bacon. "Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez (37) and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football," chronicles the largely disastrous three-year tenure of Rodriguez in Ann Arbor.

Bacon got great access to Rodriguez during his final season, helping produce what should be a book eagerly read by fans in both Michigan and West Virginia, where the coach made his name with the Mountaineers.

Putting out an APB for …

… John Elway's favorite target at Stanford, Ken Margerum (38). Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the former wide receiver with the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, please apprise The Dash.

Meanwhile, The Dash is pleased to report that last week's APB subject, former Houston Cougars gunslinger David Klingler, is alive and well and living in Houston. Klingler is the director of Dallas Theological Seminary's Houston campus, where he received his master's degree in theology and later earned his Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary.

Klingler also was the Cougars' radio analyst from 2006-08 and currently watches his two sons play football at the high school and junior high levels. Thanks to all The Dash's spies for forwarding information on Klingler.

Point after

When hungry and thirsty in the football-friendly town of Ann Arbor, The Dash suggests dinner at Sava's (39), a joint with an eclectic menu and a beer list to match. Try the chorizo sausage burger topped bleu cheese and a chipotle sauce and a Bell's Two-Hearted Ale.

Then take a walk to the Alley Bar (40) for a Founder's Pale Ale, brewed in Grand Rapids. Thank The Dash later.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.