Forde-Yard Dash: 10 Comeback Stories Shaping the College Football Season

From Michigan to Jarrett Guarantano to Lovie Smith's Illinois, these people and teams in college football have turned things around.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (applications currently being accepted for a new Get-Back Coach in Minneapolis):

MORE DASH: Tua Injury Fallout | Division Races | Texas Is Not Back

SECOND QUARTER

COMEBACK KIDS

Everyone loves a good comeback story, right? The person or team that hits hard times but doesn’t wilt, persevering through adversity and turning a wayward season (or career) around. There are a bunch of those happening right now in the sport, and The Dash has the list:

Michigan (11). Low ebb: Getting run out of Camp Randall Stadium by Wisconsin on Sept. 21.

Since: the Wolverines have gone 6-1, and the lone loss (at Penn State) came within a dropped pass of taking the game into overtime.

What changed: Michigan stopped turning the ball over at an alarming rate. After nine turnovers in the first three games, it has had six in the last seven, and only one in the last three. Quarterback Shea Patterson regained full health, and developed a better sync with offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. And defensive coordinator Don Brown started mixing in some zone coverages, as opposed to living and dying with man-to-man.

Where Michigan stands now: The Wolverines are 8-2 with a trip to Indiana Saturday and the defining rivalry game against Ohio State Nov. 30. There is no reason to declare that Michigan can beat the Buckeyes—but that matchup no longer looks like a guaranteed, avert-your-eyes horror show for the home fans.

Trevor Lawrence (12). Low ebb: This is all relative, of course, because Lawrence has never lost a college game—everyone would love to trade their low ebb for his. But on Oct. 19, Lawrence threw two forehead-slapping interceptions in the first quarter at Louisville to run his season total of picks to eight—doubling the total he threw all of last season.

His efficiency rating at that point was 136.87, down more than 20 points from his freshman season.

Since: Lawrence has thrown 98 straight passes without an interception, while also throwing 13 touchdown passes and seeing his yards per attempt leap from 8.1 to 11.7 in the last four games. His efficiency rating was 136.87 after the Louisville game, 20 points lower than his freshman year. Currently it is 171.82.

What changed: Improved focus, perhaps. Lawrence was surrounded by so much offseason hype that it might have gotten inside his head. That appears to have been blocked out now. As coach Dabo Swinney said after Lawrence tore up Wake Forest Saturday: "He's playing like the best player in the country. I don't think he was playing like the best player in the country early, but he was still the best player in the country."

Where Lawrence stands now: He’s still not going to win the Heisman Trophy unless Joe Burrow completely gives it away, but it’s now conceivable that he could be a finalist for the award. The race for second place is wide open.

Virginia Tech (13). Low ebb: The Hokies were 2-2 coming out of September, 0-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference after a 35-point loss to Duke. Questions were percolating about coach Justin Fuente’s job security.

Since: Virginia Tech is 5-1, with only a one-point loss at Notre Dame on the wrong side of the ledger. The Hokies control their own destiny in the Coastal Division.

What changed: Fuente changed starting quarterbacks after the Duke debacle, going with dual-threat Hendon Hooker and benching senior Ryan Willis. Hooker is undefeated as a starter and hasn’t yet thrown an interception in 103 college pass attempts. And Bud Foster’s final Tech defense has gotten back to looking like most of his former defenses, allowing just 80.5 rushing yards in the last six games.

Where Virginia Tech stands now: At 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the ACC, Tech needs to beat Pittsburgh Saturday to make the season finale against rival Virginia a showdown for the Coastal Division title. Win those two and it would certainly seem to be enough to restore faith in Fuente.

Jarrett Guarantano (14). Low ebb: Going rogue on a fourth-down sneak Oct. 19 against Alabama, a decision that resulted in a fumble and a 100-plus-yard touchdown return that sealed defeat for the 2-5 Volunteers. That led to a sideline ripping and facemask tugging from coach Jeremy Pruitt, not to mention being pilloried by Tennessee fans. After being benched earlier in the season, many of them didn’t want to see him again.

Since: Guarantano has come off the bench the last three games, keying Tennessee victories over South Carolina, UAB and Kentucky—the program’s first three-game winning streak since 2016. Guarantano replaced freshman J.T. Shrout in the first two games and Brian Maurer in the third, with positive results. He led two touchdown drives to help the Vols take command against South Carolina, then led two more in the second half against Kentucky to erase a 13-3 deficit.

What changed: A lot. Guarantano paid a price for his insubordination, but he’s kept his head in the game and been ready when Tennessee needed him. The junior’s roller-coaster career is trending back up right now.

Where Guarantano stands now: Ready to play a key role again Saturday at Missouri, and again in the home finale against Vanderbilt Nov. 30. Tennessee only needs to win one of those two to make its first bowl since 2016. Pruitt is playing multiple QBs every game, but Guarantano probably gives him his best chance to win both games.

Miami (15). Low ebb: After a home loss to the worst team in the ACC, Georgia Tech, the Hurricanes were 3-4 on Oct. 19. Seven games into his tenure, the fans were already turning on native son Manny Diaz.

Since: The ‘Canes have won three straight—upsetting Pittsburgh, dominating rival Florida State and routing Louisville.

What changed: Miami is a plus-six turnover margin in the last three games, producing eight takeaways. Freshman quarterback Jarren Williams, back from mid-season injury, has been key as well—he came off the bench to lead the game-winning drive at Pitt, and followed that with strong performances against both FSU and Louisville. Combined numbers during the winning streak: 40 for 67 for 616 yards and nine touchdowns, with no interceptions.

Where Miami stands now: With remaining games against Florida International and Duke, the Hurricanes should finish 8-4 and 6-3 in the league, a step forward from the final season under Mark Richt.

Lane Kiffin (16). Low ebb: His Florida Atlantic team started 0-2, outscored by 58 points, leaving Kiffin 5-9 in his last 14 games as coach of the Owls.

Since: FAU has won seven of its last eight and is tied for the lead in the Conference USA East Division with Marshall. (The Owls will need some help to win the division, however, having lost to the Thundering Herd.)

What changed: The competition got easier, for starters—the first two games were against Ohio State and UCF. But year-over-year, the FAU improvement has largely come on defense: the Owls are allowing 7.7 fewer points than in 2018, and have given up just 11.3 points in the last three games.

Where Kiffin stands now: Next to the phone, waiting for a Power 5 program to call.

USC (17). Low ebb: The Trojans were 3-3 after losing at Notre Dame, not good enough defensively and piecing together an injury-riddled quarterback situation.

Since: USC has won four of its last five—which may not be enough to win the Pac-12 South or save Clay Helton’s job, but it has at least pumped some enjoyment back into a season that has been played under a cloud from the start.

What changed: The schedule lightened up, after playing three teams currently in the Sagarin Top 20 (Utah, Washington, Notre Dame). Rising star quarterback Kedon Slovis returned from a concussion. A team that had a minus-seven turnover margin through the first six games is even over the last five.

Where USC stands now: The Trojans are loitering a game behind Utah in the South, waiting for the Utes to blow one of their final two against Arizona and Colorado (both unlikely). If they do, and USC beats UCLA Saturday, it would win the division by virtue of beating Utah head-to-head.

Tom Allen (18). Low ebb: After consecutive losses to Purdue to finish consecutive seasons 5-7, not many Indiana fans believed in a guy whose only previous head-coaching experience was at the high school level.

Since: Indiana is 7-3, with a chance for its first eight-win season since 1993 and first nine-win season since 1967.

What changed: Allen hired offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State, and he’s gotten productive play from two quarterbacks, Michael Penix and Peyton Ramsey. But the defensive side of the ball, where Kane Wommack was elevated this year to coordinator, has shown the biggest improvement, with the Hoosiers allowing their fewest points per game (21.4) since ’93.

Where Allen stands now: Probably in line for a raise and extension. Allen currently is the lowest-paid coach in the Big Ten.

Illinois (19). Low ebb: The Illini were 2-4 on Oct. 12, losers of four straight, seemingly on their way to an eighth straight losing season and the end of the Lovie Smith Era.

Since: Illinois has won four straight—two of them in dramatic fashion—for its first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 2001.

What changed: Illinois has produced 12 takeaways during the winning streak, currently leading the nation in both takeaways and turnover margin. And a program known for the opposite of clutch play produced one big play after another to mount comebacks against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Where Illinois stands now: Going bowling for the first time since 2014, and ready to stick with Smith into 2020.

Shane Buechele (20). Low ebb: Beaten out by Sam Ehlinger at Texas, Buechele went from throwing more than 600 passes his first two seasons as a college quarterback to 44 last year.

Since: Buechele transferred to SMU, became the starter and has led the Mustangs to a surprise 9-1 record. He’s fourth nationally in passing yards per game at 319.5 and tied for seventh in touchdown passes with 28.

What changed: Scenery. Buechele wasn’t going to beat out Ehlinger, so he matriculated up I-35 as a grad transfer to a program in need of a slinger. He’s been an idea fit in Sonny Dykes’ offense.

Where Buechele stands now: Still competing for an American Athletic Conference West Division title, and with a solid shot at the SMU single-season records for passing yardage and touchdown passes.

MORE DASH: Tua Injury Fallout | Division Races | Texas Is Not Back