Senior Writer

Comebacks all the rage in 2010 season


You might have noticed there have been a few comebacks this season.

South Carolina finished first in anything football-related (SEC East) for the first time since 1969.

James Madison dropped Virginia Tech to 0-2 in Week 2. The Hokies, now ACC champions, have not lost since.

Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich returned from a battle with cancer.

Joe Paterno, he says, is returning in 2011.

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Michigan State's Mark Dantonio returned from a heart attack to lead the Spartans to a share of the Big Ten title.

Where do you want to start with Les Miles and LSU? The Tennessee game? Alabama?

Comebacks were all the rage in 2010. We told you so back in August. But to come back, you must first fail. There is precious little patience for that these days. Everybody wants an Urban Meyer, a Jim Tressel, a Bob Stoops. Those coaches are among the four who have won a national championship within their first two seasons at a school since 2000. Lord, even Larry Coker won one in his first season at Miami.

Gene Chizik and Chip Kelly, then, are in-step with the times. Their teams are in the BCS title game because of comebacks, at times huge ones. Chizik's Auburn had to come from behind in eight of its 13 wins. Four of those eight saw the Tigers down by double digits. Oregon has eight comeback wins of its own. That's 16 games, more than a full season, during which the top-ranked teams in the country have trailed by a maximum of 157 points.

The age of the steamroller seemingly ended long ago. The entire sport is about comebacks. Half of Ohio State's 14 wins in 2002 were decided by a touchdown or less. Two years ago, Florida inexplicably lost to Ole Miss, prompting the Tebow Promise. Ask Texas if it believes in comebacks -- in 2011. It had better. Mack Brown's 'Horns went from 13-1 to 5-7 in one season.

Either Chizik or Kelly is going to become that fifth coach to win a title within two seasons at his school. Thankfully, in the short time they've been on the job, they have had room to fail. Spectacularly. Hell, Chizik hadn't been hired yet before he was labeled a "loser" at Auburn for bringing a 5-19 record from Iowa State. Kelly's world collapsed around him after all of one game as head coach at Oregon.

Comebacks? There were more. Boise isn't in the BCS mix because Nevada, ranked for the first time since 1948, came back from a 17-point deficit against the Broncos. Miami (Ohio) went from 1-11 to MAC champions. And you may have heard of a former third-string quarterback at Florida who matriculated through junior college to get to Auburn.

When the ground-up tire bits from the FieldTurf cleared, we were left with more SEC skid marks. The Strength Everywhere Conference has pulled away from the pack, whether its scandals or scatbacks. In the end, it's still all about the football. The SEC could win its fifth national championship in a row.

Even "Death to the BCS" couldn't kill the BCS, although the system looks like it has tried with this postseason's games.

 Unbeaten TCU's consolation prize after going unbeaten is a likely date against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

 Stanford would be headed to Pasadena except for a BCS rule that keeps it out of the Rose Bowl this season and will force it onto a plane for a 3,000-plus mile trip to the Orange Bowl. Make sense? Nothing says "intersectional" like Virginia Tech and Stanford.

 Arkansas gets Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Pull up the chips and dip for a former Michigan man (Ryan Mallett) and the current Ohio State star (Terrelle Pryor).

 The grand-dud of them all could be the Fiesta, which will take the Big East champion only because it is required by BCS law. Four-loss Connecticut will face Oklahoma.

Those are projections. The official pairings will come out Sunday night. The sure things are two BCS newbies. Twelve teams have played for BCS titles in the 13 years of the postseason system. Ten have won it. None of those have been named Auburn or Oregon.

Auburn has two interwoven long and glorious histories. One is undying fan support that makes it possible for two tourists walking along the Great Wall of China to spot their school colors and shout to each other, "War Eagle!" The other is an inglorious history with the NCAA. It is tied for second all time with seven major infractions cases in its history.

That's what made the last month of the season so sinister and mysterious. While Newton was bum-rushing his way to a supposed Heisman, others were just calling him a bum. The NCAA finally gave him his hall pass Wednesday. Daddy may have pimped his son to Mississippi State, but it was all street-legal until further notice, leaving us breathless for all the right reasons. Cameron Newton is the best player a lot of us have seen in our lives.

The chase, then, is on for two programs that couldn't be further apart in terms of geography, culture, tradition and school colors. Even Bo, the Pats (both Sullivan and Dye), Terry (Bowden) and Tommy (Tuberville) couldn't get the Tigers to these heights. Auburn hasn't won a national championship since 1957. Its 2004 unbeaten season was marred by the cold shoulder given to it by the BCS.

That 2004 team is a football equivalent of factory workers. It had 30 players who at least made it into an NFL camp, if not a starting spot. This one has a handful of potential pros, according to the experts. Some of the current Tigers are on their fourth coordinator. In part because of the attrition caused by the coaching change, there are only five players from the 2008 recruiting class of 28 signees who could be considered key contributors. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley became the breakout star on a defense that has gotten better as the season went on. A rush defense that was being victimized early on heads into the national championship game ranked in the top 10.

RB LaMichael James is just one of several of Oregon's feel-good comeback stories for the 2010 season. (Getty Images)  
RB LaMichael James is just one of several of Oregon's feel-good comeback stories for the 2010 season. (Getty Images)  
The offense has been Gus Malzahn's dream. Six years ago, Auburn's offensive coordinator was a noted high school coach in Arkansas. After stops at Arkansas and Tulsa, he found the perfect match in Auburn. His offense needs a triggerman. Newton both wields and is the weapon. With his talent and his ebullience, Newton lifted Auburn to the next level. You saw it in that near-disastrous first half at Alabama. With Auburn trailing 24-0, Newton never wavered.

"His persona, not in the second half at Alabama, but in the first half at Alabama, when everything was going wrong around him [was amazing]," CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. "He was calm, no theatrics, no yelling at any players, no frustrations."

In the four games since allegations of improprieties came out, Newton has gotten better. Thirteen of his 32 touchdown passes and six of his 20 rushing touchdowns have come since Nov. 5, with everything on the line. He and Tebow are the only players to ever pass and rush for 20 touchdowns each in a season.

Oregon was as laughable as it gets. That is, until Rich Brooks came along in 1977. The former Oregon State player gave Oregon football a backbone, a purpose, pride, before departing after the 1994 season. It was Brooks, whose Oregon career intersected that of Kansas State's Bill Snyder for six seasons, who helped give meaning to the phrase: "If it can be done at (fill in the blank), it can be done anywhere."

Brooks handed the program over to hand-picked assistant Mike Bellotti, who took the Ducks to the next level (12 bowls in 14 seasons). By that time, the now football gem of the Northwest had attracted the attention of Nike CEO Phil Knight, who infused the program the cash, facilities and ... uniforms. Oh, those uniforms. Zsa Zsa Gabor became jealous when the Ducks equipment room was filled with multiple uni combinations. Even if you didn't like Oregon, you couldn't help but slow down to take a look.

For our purposes, Oregon's comeback started Sept. 3, 2009. That was the night LeGarrette Blount shamed himself and the university with that sucker punch to the face of Boise State linebacker Byron Hout. A day after his first game as a head coach, Kelly was faced with keeping his and the program's dignity. He did the right thing in suspending Blount for the season. Blount was later reinstated, which proved another Kelly trait. He could think on different levels -- balancing his player, the media and his team at the same time.

The offseason brought another set of tests. QB Jeremiah Masoli may or may not have stolen a laptop, tailback LaMichael James may or may not have had an altercation with his girlfriend. But Kelly had enough of both players. Masoli was eventually booted off the team. James was suspended for the opener. With Masoli gone, sophomore Darron Thomas got the job in the week before the opener. It was the perfect choice for Kelly's perfect offense. A legion of coaches already had made their way to Eugene to study Kelly's zone-read spread. They will be back. This was the season when it took off. The Ducks lead the country in scoring and total offense.

"It's impossible to prepare for. You've got to do the best that you can [in practice]," USC's Lane Kiffin said.

How will they match up? Let's just say it will be entertaining. This title game is assured of being the worst defensive matchup in BCS history. The previous 12 games have included at least one defense ranked in the top 10 nationally. Auburn came into Saturday 58th nationally in total defense. Oregon was 29th.

Oregon's is a power running offense out of a spread look. It's similar to West Virginia's offense under Rich Rodriguez -- on steroids. Going into Saturday, Kelly's heroes had snapped the ball, on average, every 21 seconds, scoring almost two points per minute of possession.

About the same time Kelly was choosing Thomas as his starter, Auburn's coaches were trying to decide what to do with Newton. Officially, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback had to win the job. Yeah, right.

"There was very little said," retired former Auburn assistant Bill Oliver explained. "Cam goes through the offseason program, goes through spring practice, and you don't even know the guy is a good football player. The point is, they kept it a secret.

"The thing that Cam has done, he's elevated every guy on that football team. I've never seen anybody like him before."

And if form holds, he will lead another comeback, this one in a western suburb of Phoenix where national championships are won -- Glendale, Ariz.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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