Maryland had a lot of indications that they were terrible last year: the loss to Middle Tennessee State, the almost-loss to James Madison, the 2-10 record. One that still stands out in my mind was the loss at Duke.
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad loss. Duke wasn't a bad team last year. They were only one game away from a bowl. They put up points like nobody's business, and Thaddeus Lewis was a great QB. It was a close game in Durham in terrible weather. There were a solid 6 or 7 losses worse than that one, and maybe more.
But Duke is, and will be for quite some time, the universal standard for crappy football teams. When your team loses to Duke and crosses that Duke-suckiness-threshold, you know things are bad.
Now Maryland gets a shot at redemption and a chance to prove they've recrossed that threshold when the two teams meet in College Park this Saturday. And if Maryland loses this year, it will be a bad loss.
This year's Duke isn't all that different from last year's Duke. They're just a little worse at everything.
They're still pass-oriented, coming in at 20th in the country in passing offense. Sean Renfree has taken over for Thaddeus Lewis, and has done admirably. Don't get me wrong, he's not Lewis: under Thad, Duke was 9th, not 20th, in passing offense, and Renfree's dropped about a dozen spots in passing efficiency. He's not Lewis, but he's not terrible.
The wide receivers, meantime, seem to have improved, and they were already pretty solid last season. If Conner Vernon actually played for a good team and didn't rock corn rows, he'd be a wide recognized star of a WR. He's 14th in the country in receptions and 7th in receiving yards; sure, his team passes to him more than Maryland passes to Torrey Smith (read: a crapload) but it's still impressive.
The running game might've improved too, but that's really only because they had no where else to go but up. After finishing dead last a year ago, they've moved up to 72nd, a number that's still not imposing but not as vulnerable as last year's. The attack's led by Desmond Scott, a converted corner, and Josh Snead, both of whom could be described as efficient: neither's received more than 15 carries a game, but both average greater than 5 yards per carry. That doesn't mean you should fear the running game, per se; it's still a very secondary option for the Blue Devils.
They're still not particularly good defensively, giving up a semi-understandable 62 to Alabama and an unacceptable 54 to Wake Forest. Not a single team has put up fewer than 27 against them, including Elon and Army. They're good for third-to-last in the country in scoring defense. Maryland and Danny O'Brien should be dropping 40.
The defensive problems shouldn't be shocking; after all, the three best players of the defense, Vince Oghobaase, Vincent Rey, and Leon Wright, all graduated. The results aren't pretty: they're giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground, are fielding a pass defense that comes in at 82nd in the nation, and have put up just four sacks (103rd in the country) in their four games. Outside of a semi-respectable five interceptions, nothing about this defense is scary.
All of this is wildly different from last year's team, which was a passing force and at the very least adequate defensively. There's a big difference between coming into a game with a top 10 passing offense plus a defense that's in the 60s nationally and coming into a game with a top 20 passing offense and a bottom 20 defense.
I don't find Duke an imposing team, personally. They couldn't defend a very average Wake Forest team that was shut out by Florida State (FSU's good, but I'd hope Maryland could at least score on them). They lost to Army. They beat Elon by less than Maryland beat FIU.
Duke's lone hope is to pass the ball, and pass it a lot. Given Cameron Chism and Dexter McDougle's recent struggles, Maryland might be vulnerable. But outside of that, there's really nowhere that Duke's better than Maryland that I can see.
This will be the first real challenge of the year, the first game to prove that they aren't the Terrapins of last year. If it's a loss, things won't be pretty.