Every November, as another college football season nears its conclusion, one of the rituals is recognizing the year's best turnaround stories.
There was no question about the king of turnabouts in 2013. Auburn rebounded from 3-9 in 2012 to go 12-2, losing the national title game to Florida State.
This fall, the best candidate for a one-year reversal with national prominence has to be Texas Christian University, which has rocketed from a 4-8 record last year to an 8-1 mark, with the Horned Frogs facing three more winnable — if not easy — games against Kansas, Texas and Iowa State.
As of today, TCU stands at a plus-4 in improvement, based purely on wins. Among the other noteworthy turnarounds in 2014 are Memphis (3-9 to 6-3), Temple (2-10 to 5-4), Alabama-Birmingham (2-10 to 5-5) and Louisiana Tech (4-8 to 7-3).
Two college programs already have reached plus-5. One is Western Michigan, which has surged from 1-11 to 6-3.
The other plus-5 team: Air Force, now 7-2 after its 48-21 romp last Saturday at Nevada-Las Vegas.
How legitimate has Air Force's revival been so far? The convincing 28-14 upset victory against Boise State in September, along with two other wins over 2013 bowl teams (Navy and UNLV), should answer that question.
But the Falcons are staring at three more games that could put a serious damper on what they've achieved. The next two weekends, they have to face the two teams currently tied for first place in the Mountain West Conference's West Division: Nevada comes here Saturday, then Air Force visits San Diego State on Friday, Nov. 21. As if that weren't enough, the Falcons wrap up their regular season at home Friday, Nov. 28 against Colorado State, which already is 9-1 and making noise of its own. CSU, 8-6 last year, moved into the national rankings this week, 23rd in the Associated Press poll, 25th on the coaches list.
Actually, Air Force and Colorado State have a lot in common, starting with senior quarterbacks having superb seasons. CSU's Garrett Grayson has thrown for 3,024 yards and 26 touchdowns with only five interceptions, while AFA leader Kale Pearson has crafted a remarkable year of his own after knee surgery ended his 2013 season in the first game. Pearson has run for 478 yards and five touchdowns, but even more impressively has passed for 1,213 yards and 10 scores with two interceptions.
(Pearson could be an obvious candidate for an extra year of injury-hardship eligibility in 2015 from the NCAA because of playing in just one game as a junior, but that's never a given for service academies.)
CSU and Air Force have played far better defense this year, with the Falcons ranking 39th nationally in total defense, 30th in scoring and against the run. Though the Rams' numbers aren't quite that good, they arguably have played a tougher schedule. Both also have relied heavily on unexpected standouts at running back, Dee Hart for CSU (909 yards) and Jacobi Owens for AFA (988 yards).
And both head coaches, CSU's Jim McElwain and Air Force's Troy Calhoun, have stayed low-key while pushing all the right buttons. McElwain probably will find himself a target for any big-time programs looking for new head coaches come December (Michigan? South Carolina? Oregon State?).
Calhoun hasn't been part of the annual rumor mill for a while and seems perfectly happy here, but don't forget he's from Oregon and could be vulnerable to entreaties from a Pac-12 program.
For now, though, it's totally appropriate to put Air Force and Colorado State high on any list of feel-good stories in the 2014 college season.
And if both the Falcons and Rams make it unscathed from now to Nov. 28, the rest of the nation might notice.
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