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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | July 16, 2020

The largest college football comebacks in FBS history

Watch Maryland's amazing 31-point comeback vs. Miami in 1984

Who doesn't love a good comeback story? College football fans have had the chance to witness several historic comebacks in the last few years, where teams have overcome unimaginable deficits to pull out unlikely victories.

Here are the largest comebacks in the history of FBS football where the team that was trailing went on to win:

  • 35 points — Michigan State defeats Northwestern on Oct. 21, 2006
  • 31 points — Maryland defeats Miami on Nov. 10, 1984
  • 31 points — Ohio State defeats Minnesota on Oct. 28, 1989
  • 31 points — Texas Tech defeats Minnesota on Dec. 29, 2006
  • 31 points — TCU defeats Oregon on Jan. 2, 2016
  • 31 points — Tulsa defeats Fresno State on Sept. 24, 2016
  • 30 points — California defeats Oregon on Oct. 2, 1993

1. Michigan State vs. Northwestern

Date: Oct. 21, 2006
Deficit: 35 points
Score: 38-3
Time remaining: 9:54 in the 3rd quarter

Michigan State didn't just complete the biggest comeback in FBS history in October 2006, but the Spartans did so in just less than 25 minutes of game time. It's also the biggest second-half comeback in the history of the sport.

The score 28-3 is well-known from Super Bowl LI, when the Atlanta Falcons led the New England Patriots 28-3 late in the third quarter. Well, Northwestern's lead over Michigan State was the Falcons' lead, plus 10 points.

Ironically, it was an otherwise forgettable Michigan State team that pulled off the sport's biggest comeback ever. It was the Spartans' only win in the Big Ten all season as they went 1-7 in the conference and finished 4-8 overall.

Michigan State scored the first points of the game on a 32-yard field goal in the first quarter. The game then had two different 38-0 scoring runs, as Northwestern scored 38 consecutive points from 5:17 remaining in the first quarter to 9:54 remaining in the third quarter, then Michigan State scored 38 points in a row to end the game.

Brett Swanson's 28-yard field goal with 13 seconds left gave Michigan State the win.

"Freshman Brett Swenson had plenty of time to think about his game-winning kick in MSU's thrilling 41-38 comeback win here Saturday," the Lansing State Journal's Todd Schulz wrote. "As the Spartans drove downfield in the final minutes, it was clear they'd decided to play for a field goal, running the ball six straight times to Northwestern's 11-yard line. Still, Swenson wasn't sweating as he trotted out for a 28-yard try with 13 seconds remaining. Not much, any way."

Somewhat surprisingly, Northwestern only had two turnovers all game, so it's not as if the Wildcats imploded due to four interceptions in the second half — although an interception set up the game-winning field goal. Michigan State only had one defensive or special teams touchdown in the rally — a blocked punt returned 33 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

Here's the complete scoring summary:

  • 10:07 1Q | 3-0 MSU – Brett Swenson kicks 32-yard field goal
  • 5:17 1Q | 7-3 NW – Ross Lane catches 5-yard pass from C.J. Bacher
  • 14:27 2Q | 14-3 NW – C.J. Bacher 2-yard run
  • 10:57 2Q | 17-3 NW – Joel Howells kicks 30-yard field goal
  • 4:17 2Q | 24-3 NW – Shaun Herbert catches 18-yard pass from Brandon Roberson
  • 11:39 3Q | 31-3 NW – Ross Lane catches 22-yard pass from C.J. Bacher
  • 9:54 3Q | 38-3 NW – Shaun Herbert catches 5-yard pass from C.J. Bacher
  • 7:03 3Q | 38-10 NW – Jehuu Caulcrick catches 18-yard pass from Drew Stanton
  • 2:47 3Q | 38-17 NW – A.J. Jimmerson 4-yard run
  • 11:22 4Q | 38-24 NW – Ashton Henderson 33-yard punt return
  • 7:54 4Q | 38-31 NW – Drew Stanton 12-yard run
  • 3:43 4Q | 38-38 – T.J. Williams catches 9-yard pass from Drew Stanton
  • 0:13 4Q | 41-38 MSU – Brett Swenson kicks 28-yard field goal

CFP: History of teams, records of the College Football Playoff

T-2. Maryland vs. Miami (FL)

Date: Nov. 10, 1984
Deficit: 31 points
Score: 31-0
Time remaining: 12:35 in the 3rd quarter

Miami (FL) wasn't just leading Maryland by 31 points but the sixth-ranked Hurricanes were leading 31-0. The Terrapins hadn't scored in the first half before putting up 42 points in the last 27-plus minutes to win 42-40. The win allowed the Terps to clinch bowl eligibility as they improved to 6-3.

Miami, by the way, had climbed from No. 10 in the preseason AP poll to No. 1 after neutral-site wins over then-No. 1 Auburn and No. 17 Florida, so the 'Canes were a former No. 1 that blew a 31-0 lead at home!

"The Maryland Terrapins never gave up hope Saturday, and that stubborn resolve, spiked by backup quarterback Frank Reich, led the Terps past sixth-ranked Miami 42-40 in one of the greatest comebacks in college football history," reported the AP. "The Terps, who trailed 31-0 at the half, junked their conservative offense and brought on Reich in the second half. The results were incredible as Reich directed the underdogs to six straight touchdowns."

Reich completed 12-of-15 passes for 260 yards and four total touchdowns. He later led one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history as the Buffalo Bills backup quarterback.

Maryland followed up its win on the road against Miami with a victory against No. 20 Clemson, which allowed the Terrapins to crack the AP Top 25 poll for the first time all season at No. 18 and they ultimately went to the Sun Bowl, where they beat Tennessee.

CHAMPS: Complete national championship history for the FBS

T-2. Ohio State vs. Minnesota

Date: Oct. 28, 1989
Deficit: 31 points
Score: 31-0
Time remaining: 4:29 in the 2nd quarter

"Somehow, the Gophers' 31-0 lead was gone," wrote the Star Tribune's Curt Brown. "Long gone. Ohio State overcame six turnovers and scored 23 fourth-quarter points to go ahead 41-37 with 51 seconds to go. It equaled the biggest comeback in the history of major college football, matching Maryland's 31-point rally against Miami five years ago. But after 3.5 hours, 78 points and 792 yards, this wacky game wasn't over. Not yet. With seven seconds to go, Gophers quarterback Scott Schaffner rolled to his left and lofted a 25-yard pass toward Steve Rhem, who had broken free in the end zone ... That last pass, the 137th play of a dizzying day, made it all the way to Rhem's outstretched fingers. Then the ball and Rhem fell to the Metrodome carpet with a thud."

After Minnesota ran out to a 31-0 lead, it scored just six more points, while Ohio State piled on 41 in the 41-37 win.

Ohio State quarterback Greg Frey completed 18-of-23 passes after halftime for 327 yards and three touchdowns, while Carlos Snow had three touchdowns.

RECORDS: College football's 9 winningest teams

T-2. Texas Tech vs. Minnesota

Date: Dec. 29, 2006
Deficit: 31 points
Score: 38-7
Time remaining: 7:37 in the 3rd quarter

Yes, somehow Minnesota has blown two different 31-point leads and gone on to lose in the history of its football program. The Gophers even had a chance to win the 2006 Insight Bowl in overtime but the Red Raiders prevailed, 44-41.

Also, think about this: Texas Tech's 31-point, come-from-behind victory came just over two months after Michigan State set the FBS record with a 35-point comeback against Northwestern. It had been 13 years since a 31-point comeback and there were two of at least that margin that happened in a matter of months.

It sure helps to overcome a 31-point deficit when you have Graham Harrell — the NCAA record-holder for passes completed in a season (512) and 400-yard games in a season (11) and career (20). Look at the quarterbacks on a list of a top performers in the FBS record book for a given stat, and there's a pretty good chance Harrell's name is there.

He finished the Insight Bowl with 445 passing yards and two touchdowns after completing 36-of-55 attempts. Joel Filani was his top target with 11 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown.

Here's the complete scoring summary:

  • 9:27 1Q | 7-0 MINN – Jack Simmons 2-yard pass from Bryan Cupito
  • 6:00 1Q | 14-0 MINN – Amir Pinnix 2-yard run
  • 14:52 2Q | 21-0 MINN – Justin Valentine 1-yard run
  • 7:42 2Q | 28-0 MINN – Ernie Wheelwright 14-yard pass from Bryan Cupito
  • 4:32 2Q | 28-7 MINN – Shannon Woods 1-yard run
  • 0:32 2Q | 35-7 MINN – Logan Payne 3-yard pass from Bryan Cupito
  • 7:47 3Q | 38-7 MINN – Joel Monroe 20-yard field goal
  • 4:58 3Q | 38-14 MINN – Joel Filani 43-yard pass from Graham Harrell
  • 14:56 4Q | 38-21 MINN – Robert Johnson 8-yard pass from Graham Harrell
  • 7:49 4Q | 38-28 MINN – Graham Harrell 1-yard run
  • 2:39 4Q | 38-35 MINN – Shannon Woods 1-yard run
  • 0:00 4Q | 38-38 – Alex Trlica 52-yard field goal
  • OT | 41-38 MINN – Joel Monroe 32-yard field goal
  • OT | 44-41 TTU – Shannon Woods 3-yard run

T-2. TCU vs. Oregon

Date: Jan. 2, 2016
Deficit: 31 points
Score: 31-0
Time remaining: The second half

Is 31-0 the most dangerous lead in college football? It's starting to feel that way after reading about all these teams that have blown a 31-point advantage.

TCU, which started the 2015 season ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, overcame such a deficit in as high-stakes of a game as you'll see on this list: a top-15 matchup in the Alamo Bowl. Oregon took a 31-0 lead into halftime, then TCU scored all 31 of the points in the second half to force overtime. The game was tied 38-all after the first overtime period and 41-all after the second overtime.

"Bram Kohlhausen's eight-yard touchdown run in the third overtime carried No. 11 TCU to a wild 47-41 victory over No. 15 Oregon in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday night as the Horned Frogs stormed back from a 31-0 halftime deficit behind a backup quarterback," the AP reported. "The 31-point comeback to win tied the record for a bowl game, matching Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl against Minnesota. Oregon stormed to the big lead early behind quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., but he was knocked out of the game late in the second quarter after taking a hard hit to the head. Oregon gained only 18 yards in regulation in the second half ... Kohlhausen passed for 351 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more scores."

Here's the complete scoring summary:

  • 9:29 1Q | 7-0 ORE – Darren Carrington 37-yard pass from Vernon Adams
  • 5:12 1Q | 14-0 ORE – Royce Freeman 4-yard run
  • 0:27 1Q | 21-0 ORE – Royce Freeman 5-yard run
  • 13:30 2Q | 28-0 ORE – Tony Brooks-James 5-yard run
  • 0:32 2Q | 31-0 ORE – Aidan Schneider 47-yard field goal
  • 10:52 3Q | 31-3 ORE – Jaden Oberkrom 24-yard field goal
  • 4:18 3Q | 31-10 ORE – Jaelan Austin 26-yard pass from Bram Kohlhausen
  • 0:36 3Q | 31-17 ORE – Bram Kohlhausen 2-yard run
  • 7:45 4Q | 31-20 ORE – Jaden Oberkrom 34-yard field goal
  • 3:32 4Q | 31-28 ORE – Aaron Green 2-yard run (Buck Jones 2-point pass)
  • 0:19 4Q | 31-31 – Jaden Oberkrom 22-yard field goal
  • OT | 38-31 ORE – Royce Freeman 1-yard run
  • OT | 38-38 – Emanuel Porter 7-yard pass from Bram Kohlhausen
  • 2OT | 41-38 ORE – Aidan Schneider 44-yard field goal
  • 2OT | 41-41 – Jaden Oberkrom 46-yard field goal
  • 3OT | 47-41 TCU – Bram Kohlhausen 8-yard run

T-2. Tulsa vs. Fresno State

Date: Sept. 24, 2016
Deficit: 31 points
Score: 31-0
Time remaining: 10:16 in the 2nd quarter

What's more impressive: The fact that Tulsa rallied from a 31-point hole or the fact that it took Fresno State just 20 minutes to build a 31-0 lead? The Bulldogs' ability to score so many points so quickly actually gave the Golden Hurricane more time to mount its comeback. Tulsa trailed just 31-21 at halftime and won this one 48-41 in overtime.

"On Fresno State's first offensive play from scrimmage, the timing of the play called was all mixed up," The Fresno Bee's Robert Kuwada wrote. "The running back ended up running into the quarterback, who, while fending off a tackle by his teammate, threw a lateral that bounced before it reached its intended target out in the left flat. That actually happened. And the Bulldogs scored a touchdown on the play. Jamire Jordan picked up the football and picked his way down the sideline 44 yards into the end zone and Fresno State – a team that had struggled to do right in a 1-2 start – scored on a play on which it had done about as much wrong as possible. The going got no more rational from there."

Here's the complete scoring summary:

  • 13:24 1Q | 7-0 FRES – Jamire Jordan 44-yard run
  • 9:47 1Q | 14-0 FRES – Chason Virgil 14-yard run
  • 4:01 1Q | 21-0 FRES – Dontel James 2-yard run
  • 11:41 2Q | 24-0 FRES – Kody Kroening 25-yard field goal
  • 10:16 2Q | 31-0 FRES – Jamire Jordan 65-yard pass from Chason Virgil
  • 8:52 2Q | 31-7 FRES – Justin Hobbs 23-yard pass from Dane Evans
  • 6:48 2Q | 31-14 FRES – Keevan Lucas 40-yard pass from Dane Evans
  • 4:19 2Q | 31-21 FRES – Keevan Lucas 40-yard pass from Dane Evans
  • 8:12 3Q | 34-21 FRES – Kody Kroening 25-yard field goal
  • 4:49 3Q | 34-28 FRES – Joshua Atkinson 24-yard pass from Dane Evans
  • 13:38 4Q | 35-34 TULSA – James Flanders 2-yard run
  • 8:20 4Q | 38-34 TULSA – Redford Jones 37-yard field goal
  • 5:02 4Q | 41-38 FRES – Chason Virgil 1-yard run
  • 1:09 4Q | 414-1 – Redford Jones 28-yard field goal
  • 2OT | 48-41 TULSA – Dane Evans 18-yard run

7. California vs. Oregon

Date: Oct. 2, 1993
Deficit: 30 points
Score: 30-0
Time remaining: 2nd quarter

"Dave Barr threw three second-half touchdown passes, including a 26-yarder to Iheanyi Uwaezuoke with 1:17 left as the Golden Bears (5-0, 2-0) overcame a 30-0 deficit to beat the Ducks (3-1, 0-1) as Berkeley, Calif.," the AP reported. "It was the biggest comeback in Cal history, surpassing a 29-28 win against Arizona on Nov. 4, 1989, in which the Golden Bears overcame a 21-0 deficit. Uwaezuoke's catch culminated a nine-play, 85-yard drive, but Cal still trailed by one point. The Bears elected to go for the two-point conversion, and Barr found Mike Caldwell in the corner of the end zone to complete the second-half turnaround in which Cal outscored Oregon 35-11."

Cal ultimately won 42-41.

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