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The USFL’s Pittsburgh Maulers are in good company when it comes to pulling off a huge turnaround.

One year after finishing last place in their division, the Maulers finished the 2023 regular season in first place and advanced to the USFL title game in thrilling fashion by beating the Michigan Panthers 31-27 in overtime to win the North Division Championship.

The Maulers aren’t alone, however. There have been plenty of incredible worst-to-first turnarounds in recent sports memory.

Here are some of the biggest over the past few years.

NFL: 2019 San Francisco 49ers (13-3, first place NFC West; 4-12 record previous season)

After a multi-year rebuild under head coach Kyle Shanahan, everything clicked in 2019 behind a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and a ferocious, loaded defense. A big part of that defense was rookie pass-rusher Nick Bosa, who became an instant star after San Francisco selected him with the second overall pick in 2019 out of Ohio State. The Niners rolled to an NFC title and nearly went all the day before a late comeback from the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

MLB: 2023 Cincinnati Reds (41-36, first place NL Central*; 62-100 record previous season)

Sure, the Reds still have a long way to go, but they’ve already surpassed virtually every expectation placed upon them this year after losing 100 games last year. Yet, here the Reds are, revitalizing their fan base in Cincinnati behind the unlikely duo of 21-year-old world-beating phenom Elly De La Cruz and 39-year-old franchise icon Joey Votto.

*Record entering play Sunday, June 25.

College Football: 2022 TCU (13-2, national runner-up; 5-7 record previous season)

TCU had broken into the national spotlight before 2022, but those days appeared to be over after a dismal 2021 that led to the departure of longtime head coach Gary Patterson. Enter Sonny Dykes, whose creative spin on the air raid and risk-taking mentality led to one of the most stunning and chaotic rises college football had ever seen, culminating in one of the great upsets in College Football Playoff history when TCU took down Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal.

FIFA Men’s World Cup: 2022 Morocco (2-0-1 in group, made semifinal; 0-2-1 in group previous tournament)

After Morocco finished last in its group in 2018, few expected the team to make much noise during the 2022 World Cup, especially in a group that also contained the second- and third-place finishers from 2018 in Croatia and Belgium, respectively. However, Morocco won Group F, eliminating Belgium in the process. Then, Morocco stunned Spain and Portugal in the knockout stage to become the first African nation to reach a men’s World Cup semifinal before the team’s magical run came to an end against defending champion France.

Every goal scored by Morocco in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup

Every goal scored by Morocco in the 2022 FIFA Men's World Cup

NBA: 2020-21 Phoenix Suns (51-21, made NBA Finals; 34-39, 26-39 pre-NBA bubble)

After 10 years of irrelevance, the Suns’ 8-0 run in the pandemic-caused 2020 NBA Bubble convinced the team’s front office to go all-in with a trade for star point guard Chris Paul the following offseason. With Paul and Devin Booker in the backcourt, Mikal Bridges flourished as a two-way wing and DeAndre Ayton developed his pick-and-roll offense. The Suns rattled off 51 wins before beating the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers to make their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993. 

Phoenix is still all-in on building around Booker after mammoth trades for Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal in recent months.

Men’s College Basketball: 2022-23 Fairleigh Dickinson (21-16, NCAA tournament berth, upset No. 1 Purdue; 4-22 previous season)

When Tobin Anderson was hired from the Division II ranks to take over an FDU team that had won just four games the year prior, nobody expected what would happen next. Virtually nobody gave 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson a chance against No. 1 Purdue after the Knights’ First Four win over Texas Southern. 

Nobody, that is, except Anderson. The rest is history.

Women’s College Basketball: 2021-22 Utah (21-16, NCAA tournament second round; 5-16 previous season)

Utah rose from the ashes of a pandemic-altered 2020-21 season to make an unlikely run to the Pac-12 tournament title game before losing to powerhouse Stanford. Still, the Utes received their first NCAA tournament bid in over a decade and beat Arkansas in the first round before losing to Texas. 

The next year, Utah very nearly took down eventual national champion LSU in the Sweet 16.


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