Back in the game: What a year for college football comebacks

Here at Flipping The Field, we love us a great comeback. Every week, we honor the weekend's best comeback. That's why, after eight weeks, we're totally loving us some 2016, a season that is shaping up to be defined by those who are coming up big on the rebound.

It isn't just programs or players -- it's programs and players. These aren't just the returns of programs that have dropped from national relevance over long periods of time and are back. These are programs that have vanished and reappeared this very season.

"That stuff, the stuff that maybe you didn't see coming or that you didn't count on, is the stuff that makes every college football season unique," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said in reference to both the 2016 rise of Louisville and Lamar Jackson and 2015's FSU upset by Georgia Tech, which happened almost exactly one year ago. "Unfortunately, that's also the same stuff that gives coaches ulcers and sleepless nights.

"And you know what? When you look back on seasons, you might remember the teams who played for the national championship, but it's those other unexpected guys who really wrote the story of the year."

Rebound programs

There's Washington, a proud program that hasn't had a lot to be proud of the past decade-and-a-half. Now the Huskies are 7-0 and thinking of their first Pac-12 title since 2000 and their first real shot at a national championship since 1991. To accomplish all that, they might have to go through, of all teams, Colorado, a program that just became bowl-eligible for the first time in nearly a decade and hasn't won as much as a conference division title since 2005.

There's Nebraska, sitting 7-0 for the first time since 2001 and ranked seventh in the latest AP Top 25. The Huskers are joined there by West Virginia, which is 6-0 for the first time since 2006 and ranked 10th. What is this -- 1989? Are Trev Alberts and Major Harris playing?

Michigan is 7-0 for the first time since 2006 and only the fourth time in the past 40 years. The other three times (1986, '97, '06) ended in trips to the Rose Bowl. And down south, there's Tennessee. The Vols have two losses but are back in the national conversation for the first time since the mid-Phil Fulmer years.

What does all this mean? Well, ask Ohio State. The Buckeyes just lost to Penn State in what was the Nittany Lions' first victory over a top-two team since 1991. Can Penn State win the national championship? No. Realistically, the Nittany Lions can't even win the Big Ten championship. But they just made life more difficult for a team that thought it could. Yes, the Buckeyes can still win it all, but their margin for error is now gone. It's a margin that will be tested by Nebraska in two weeks, Michigan a month from now and perhaps Nebraska again in the conference title game.

Rebound seasons

Remember when Oklahoma was 1-2 and total toast? Remember when Auburn -- alma mater of the Round Mound of Rebound -- was 1-2 and Gus Malzahn was being run off The Plains? When LSU was 2-2 and had just been run off The Plains while their coach was run out of town? Remember when Florida lost to Tennessee for the first time in forever, and the SEC East was lost with it, and the Gators were officially in rebuilding mode? Or when Florida State lost two out of three, and Fisher was bristling at questions about a divided locker room? Remember when Washington State was 0-2, and people were calling for the Pirate to fall on his sword?

Well, none of the teams listed above has lost since. All those teams have re-established themselves among the AP Top 25 (Wazzu is 26th), and all have huge games upcoming against teams ranked ahead of them.

We wrote about this very issue in this very space just a couple weeks ago. How does a team respond when its list of preseason goals -- division title, conference title, national title -- starts being whittled down? Multiple coaches talked about resetting goals and how the mark of a good locker room is figuring out how to stay motivated, even if that motivation is ruining the same list of goals for a rival.

"You never want to say a team is playing with nothing to lose, but sometimes, they are playing with house money, while you're playing with a chance to lose all your chips," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who will travel to Florida State this weekend. "A good team is a good team. I don't care what their record is. If they find a way to be focused, even if things haven't gone their way, then you'd better look out."

Rebound players

To Swinney's point, talent is still talent, even if that talent fell on some hard times or landed on the training room table. A pair of guys who were on the cover of all those preseason magazines you bought went away for a while. But they rematerialized over the weekend in monstrous ways. Leonard Fournette, who was missing for nearly a month via injury, set LSU's single-game rushing record with 284 yards on just 16 carries versus Ole Miss. He also scored three touchdowns.

Speaking of touchdowns, quarterback Baker Mayfield set an Oklahoma record by throwing seven TD passes against his old school, Texas Tech. (More on this insane game coming up). His performance was so sick that other QBs chimed in.

Alabama will face Fournette on Nov. 5. Mayfield will see current undefeateds Baylor and West Virginia in back-to-back weekends Nov. 12 and 19. (By the way, Utah's suddenly unretired running back also went off. More on that coming up.)

"Anyone who is willing to throw a talented team or player out with the trash in September or October is nuts," said TCU head coach Gary Patterson, who faced Mayfield's Oklahoma and resurgent West Virginia and lost to both. "Those of us who watch film for a living know the truth. Call them comebacks if you want, but their talent never went away."

If this season has taught us only one lesson, it's that the final invitation list to Tampa in January will at the very least be partially written by those we already tried to erase.

Now let's get on with Flipping The Field.

From the Ridonculous Stats Department: According to our number-smashing friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Oklahoma and Texas Tech used their 66-59 shootout to break or tie seven FBS records. Tech QB Patrick Mahomes II produced 819 yards of offense, while the two teams combined for 1,708 yards of total offense and 1,279 yards passing. The two QBs, Mahomes and OU's Baker Mayfield, produced 1,383 yards of offense between them. By the way, when these two teams met for a basketball game in Lubbock over the winter, the final score was 65-63. Navy rushed for a season-high 447 yards, and QB Will Worth accounted for a career-best five TDs. Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 434 yards vs. Boston College, the second-best day ever by an Orange QB. Since Week 3, Alabama defensive Jonathan Allen has scored the same number of TDs as Christian McCaffrey, and that's two.

Speaking of Jonathan Allen: He had a Jadeveon Clowney moment on defense too.

Donnel Pumphrey watch: My 2016 man crush had the national stage Friday night against San Jose State, and he rushed for 135 yards and a pair of TDs. You know much is expected of you when that's described as a so-so night. That effort brings Pumphrey to 1,246 yards on the season and 5,518 in his career. He's solidly among the NCAA's top 10 rushers all time, and if he manages to hit his season per game average of 177 next week at Utah State, he'll jump Cedric Benson, Archie Griffin and Travis Prentice to arrive on the edge of the top five.

Here comes the Hammer: The cavalcade of sports royalty at the Big House continues. Before Michigan stomped Illinois 41-8, they brought in No. 44 to flip the coin.

"We're going streaking!" Alabama's current streaks: 20 straight wins, 12 straight wins over ranked teams and 10 straight games with a defensive TD. North Carolina defeated Virginia in the 121st meeting of the "South's Oldest Rivalry" for its ninth straight road win and the Heels' longest road streak since a 10-gamer in 1947-49. Fresno State kicker Kody Kroening owns the nation's longest streak of field goals made, at 11 in a row, but he would like us to temper our excitement.

"Get in the car, Frank:" Then-second-ranked Ohio State's road win streak was stopped at 20. The last time an unranked Penn State team beat a top-two team was in 1964, when the 3-4 Nittany Lions won 27-0 over ... second-ranked Ohio State. South Carolina defeated UMass 34-28 to get off their lonely perch on the "only FBS school yet to score 20 points in a game" list. BYU's Friday night loss at Boise was by one point. The Cougars' four defeats this season have come via an excruciating average margin of 2.0 points.

Tommy West coach's news conference of the week: Mike Leach, Washington State. After Washington State's win over Arizona State, Leach was reprimanded by ASU head coach Todd Graham for accusing the Sun Devils of cheating. When asked about those accusations in his postgame presser, the Pirate channeled his inner Marshawn Lynch.

Best College GameDay sign not actually at College GameDay: Spotted on the UNLV campus prior to last week's presidential debate:

Back to the future for Homecoming: Well done, Liberty University.

Bigger than football: Purdue pulled one of the class act moves of the year when the Boilermaker captains met their Nebraska counterparts at midfield with a tribute to Sam Foltz, the Husker punter who died in a car accident in July.

Weston Steelhammer name of the week: Jack Popp, WR, Wisconsin. The freshman receiver didn't play at Iowa, and he doesn't have a catch this season, but honestly, shouldn't he be a defensive back? Aren't jacking and popping the two things you want a defender -- or a break dancer -- to do?

Cool threads: The South Dakota State Jackrabbits were more than a little stoked to receive their "BlackJacks" uniforms prior to their win over Youngstown State on Hobo Day.

Cool lids: On Nov. 5 against Virginia Tech, Duke will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its Rose Bowl win, a game the school actually hosted at Wallace Wade Stadium because of West Coast safety concerns due to World War II. During that war, the U.S. Army's 88th Infantry Division was known as the Blue Devils, and the logo used by those fighting men will be on the players' battleship grey helmets for the game.

Frank Reich Backup QB of the Week award: Gunner Kiel, Cincinnati. You remember this guy, right? He started the season third on the Bearcats' depth chart and made his first start of the season when he took the field against East Carolina. He had a big night: 23-of-40 passing for 348 yards and four TDs. The former Notre Dame transfer was once the starter but lost the job. At a seniors-only meeting last week, those seniors told head coach Tommy Tuberville they wanted Kiel to have another shot. After the 31-19 conference win that brought his team to 4-3, Tubs said, "I'd like for him to win the next five so everyone can point at me and say, 'Why didn't we play him the first six games?'"

Comeback of the Week award, also named for Frank Reich: Penn State. Well, duh. Admit it. When it was 21-7 at the end of the third quarter, you changed the channel, didn't you?

The guy you should know about but probably don't: Tarvarus McFadden, DB, Florida State. He's tied for the national lead in interceptions, with five, having snatched one in all but two of the Seminoles' games this season. Trust me: This will come up as we count down to this weekend's visit from Clemson.

The guy you used to know about but forgot about but should know about again: Joe Williams, RB, Utah. Williams retired from college football one month ago, citing "complications" that ranged from needing a mental break to not wanting to let his teammates down. You can read about his decision in this excellent write-up from Ted Miller. On Saturday, he returned to the team in time for the Utes' matchup with UCLA, and all he did was rush for school records with four touchdowns and 332 yards, the best single-game FBS performance in nearly two years.

The team you should know about, but probably don't: Western Michigan. With a 45-31 win over a surprisingly good Eastern Michigan team, the Broncos are 8-0 for the first time since 1941. With Houston out of the picture and Boise State on a collision course with tough outs Air Force and San Diego State in the Mountain West, Western might have a real shot at the Gang of Five's invite to the big postseason party when it hosts Toledo over Thanksgiving weekend.

The game you should be psyched for but probably aren't: Connecticut at East Carolina, noon ET, ESPNews. No, this game has no real national implications, but it will be the first home game for the Pirates since Hurricane Matthew sacked Eastern North Carolina with devastating floods. In a lot of ways, that region has only recently recovered from Hurricane Floyd 17 years ago. Now dozens of towns are back under water after a mess that forced ECU to postpone its Week 7 game with Navy until Nov. 19. The return of the team that means so much to the part of the state they call "Down East" will certainly be emotional.

Extra point: Down I-95 from Greenville and ECU, one of the state's eastern teams has already returned home after a brutal, nomadic couple of weeks. The UNC-Pembroke Braves are 7-1 and have been ranked among the top 25 in NCAA Division II for most of the season. Their home, Robeson County, is one of the areas shown extensively during the national news coverage of Hurricane Matthew, with entire city blocks of Lumberton, North Carolina, submerged under shoulder-high flood waters after storm surges sent rivers and creeks pouring over their banks. The campus was spared significant damage but was forced to shut down for a week. The Braves sent word that they wanted to keep their season going and were immediately contacted by neighbors offering help. Wingate University, a fellow Div. II school halfway between Lumberton and Charlotte, invited UNCP to use its football facilities. At one point, Wingate held practice on its football fields while UNCP practiced across campus on the Bulldogs' soccer fields. Last weekend, UNCP held a scheduled home game against Kentucky Wesleyan at the very "Friday Night Lights"-ish Pate Stadium of Scotland County High School in nearby Laurinburg, North Carolina. "The Scots do it right. Their sound system totally dwarfed ours," UNCP sports information director Todd Anderson said. On Saturday, the Braves finally returned home to Pembroke and defeated Catawba College 41-31. Coincidentally, it was homecoming, and it became a day truly worthy of the title, especially for the two players on the roster who grew up in Lumberton and several others hailing from small towns scattered throughout eastern North Carolina, communities that might not ever fully bounce back.