I posit to you these two realities:
Maryland is going bowling for the first time since 2010! They’re two games above .500. They won two of their final three games with a close margin of defeat/victory, and the opponents had a combined 18-wins. The Terps finished with three road wins for the first time since 2007. They won their rivalry game, C.J. Brown has been playing his best football since a week four West Virginia victory. They beat Virginia Tech on the road for the first time since before World War II (literally, the Model T was the top selling car in America when Maryland last beat Tech on the road).
They’re in the driver’s seat for two five-star recruits (Jalen Tabor and Damian Prince), and have a solid in with another (Kai Locksley, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s son). The recruiting class the Terps are bringing in includes an offensive lineman on the second-best team in Maryland (Jared Cohen, McDonough), and only a few players are matriculating.
Heading into the Big Ten, Maryland gets back Stefon Diggs and Deon Long from injury, Nigel King, Amba Etta Tawo and Levern Jacobs are a year older, suspended back Wes Brown returns with Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and not-with-team wideout Marcus Leak comes back to school. Oh, and C.J. Brown returns as the school’s starting quarterback, fresh off his best season as a player. On the defensive end, they have a budding star in William Likely, get back Jeremiah Johnson (who was hurt all year) and only really lose Dexter McDougle and Marcus Whitfield. By all accounts, the Big Ten should be wary of the Terrapins, who have improved their record in each of the three season’s that Randy Edsall has been head coach.
Reality B: Maryland lost four of their last six games, and five of their final eight to finish the year. Their wins during that span came against a UVA team that finished 2-10 overall and last in the ACC with zero conference victories, an NC State team that finished with three wins and zero conference victories, and one quality win against Virginia Tech on the road in overtime. They beat Virginia because of a missed field goal, and Virginia Tech team lost three of their last five games and struggled with Virginia in their final game of the season. None of their wins during that span were convincing.
The team returns a lot of guys who will have an offseason of recovery, not developmental growth. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long won’t be able to run again until summer time, and the offensive line is riddled with question marks as they were starting walk-ons at the end of the year. They have another year with C.J. Brown, who threw has a combined four touchdowns and five interceptions against teams with a winning record (that’s not including fumbles). Against top tier opponents, he was terrible all season long, and he has yet to play a full season. They’ve put together a team that is injury prone, and haven’t had stability at any position in ages.
Maryland has a potentially good 2014 recruiting class, but they end the season with zero five-star commitments, terrible play in front of those aforementioned five-stars (Syracuse, Florida State), and the #46 class in the country according to 247. They’ve got three four-stars coming in, and 9 three-stars, pegging them just ahead of Georgia Tech and Duke. That also puts them at sixth in the Big Ten by recruiting class.
The team has now won two games in the second half of the season, and now head to a league that may actually be tougher than the ACC. Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State are no slouches. They’ve won two games in the second half of the season over the past three years, and have two quality victories during that stretch. This team is far from trending upwards, it’s trending laterally at best.
So which reality is right?
When you look at Maryland’s season, there’s reason to believe that the realistic view of this year and the future moving forward is that it combines a little of both. There’s reason to be optimistic about this team. They’re over .500 and while they didn’t win the ACC, they certainly did their best given the rash of injuries this team succumbed to for the second season in a row. Randy Edsall has doubled his win total (at least) in every season he’s been here, and that’s something to be commended on.
Just as C.J. Brown is leaving the ACC, he’s starting to figure out what it’s all about. Better still, the Big Ten is slow, there’s no doubt about that. Brown is fast, and knows how to use his legs. How can you argue that another season with him at the helm is a bad thing? He doesn’t play well in really big games, but he’s still learning and definitely has improved his arm strength and decision making over the past few years. A senior quarterback as a starter is not a bad thing; it gives the future of the program (be it Will Ulmer, Caleb Rowe, or Shane Cockerille) more time to develop on the bench.
This team returns a lot of talent to their roster. They barely lose anyone from the offense that was pegged as one of the more explosive units in college football early in the season, ranking up there with Baylor and Oregon in big-play potential. Better still, their 2014 recruiting class could be monstrous; the best class in ten years. If they get everyone they want, that is.
I say if because there are still a lot of if’s on this roster. They’ll be good if Wes Brown returns entirely healthy, if they land Damian Prince to bolster the offensive line, and Jalen Tabor to ball hawk in the secondary. If they have no setbacks from Deon Long and Stefon Diggs and Marcus Leak comes back, they’re going to have the deepest unit in the Big Ten (arguably). If everyone is healthy for an entire season, this squad might win ten games in their first go in the Big Ten.
And yet, we’ve heard that story before over the last two years. As Marylanders, you have to rely on a lot of if’s in order to find optimism. The pessimists have one thing right: when you start to break down this team, there’s only a lot of bridges being sold to fans, without much tangible on-field production. Injuries seem to be more of a reality with this team than a fluke. It happened once, then it happened again. There’s reason to believe this may be a new reality (though I don’t subscribe to that theory at all, I can see the merit).
Fan attendance isn’t where it should be for a reason, and this team won’t be playing in a premier bowl for some of the same reasons. This program hasn’t yet garnered the excitement that people were hoping for heading into Big Ten play, but it’s not doing anything wrong. Everyone knew Randy Edsall was a program builder, not a guy who would come in and have an Urban Meyer, worst-to-first effect on the program. They’re slowly building for the future, and all signs point to this team being better than last year, every year.
I can’t be upset about losses to Clemson and Florida State. I can be upset that they gave away a lead against Boston College, they didn’t show up against Syracuse (in a game they needed to), and Wake Forest was a complete embarrassment for this team. I’m happy that they won two rivalry games (UVA and West Virginia) and avenged another loss against a Connecticut team that came to College Park two season’s ago for a ha-ha at Randy Edsall win.
This season may not have been the breakout one everyone was expecting (a lot of that is attributable to injuries) where the ACC title game was in reach, but it wasn’t a bad one by any stretch. The Terps showed off serious depth, and competed the entire season. They’ve got a bright future IF all things go well, and that’s not a reason to chide the team. What has Randy Edsall done but improve the team during his time here, albeit slowly? Maryland has a chance at eight wins provided they get invited to a bowl game and come away with a W. Eight wins in thirteen tries is a good season for the Terps, and I’ll take it.