This season for Maryland football was a classic case of what might've been.
What might've been had C.J. Brown not ruptured his ACL making a cut in a non-contact drill on that fateful August day. What might've been had Nick Ferrara not ended up with a season-ending injury. Had the punt coverage team been a little more disciplined against UConn. Had Devin Burns not been fallen on by a lineman. Had Maryland not fumbled away 13 points at West Virginia. Had the defense held up one more time at Boston College. Had Brad Craddock's field goal against N.C. State been a few more inches inside.
Every team can play this game at the end of the year, to some degree. And every team can also play the reverse, just like Maryland can. (Had Stefon Diggs ended up in Columbus instead of College Park? Eek.) But between Maryland's genuinely mind-numbing injuries, second-worst in the ACC turnover margin, and host of close shaves that turned out just wrong, their what-ifs are especially numerous and especially painful.
Randy Edsall said not too long ago that Maryland easily could've been 7-1 in their first eight games. For a coach who just oversaw a 4-8 season and has gone 6-18 in his first two years on the job, you could be forgiven for thinking that's just self-serving, face-saving bluster. But he isn't wrong. A punt return against UConn, a field goal against N.C. State, and a stop on third down against BC? The Terrapins win all three. Heck, if Perry Hills and Marcus Leak don't fumble against West Virginia, maybe Maryland pulls that one out, too.
No 4-8 (or worse) team has the right to feel half as aggrieved as Maryland does, especially considering what befell them after those first eight games. It hurts even thinking about it.
That stings for everyone in the program, from the players to the fans, but perhaps most of all for Edsall. Because, instead of soaking up plaudits for turning Maryland around in his second season and reaping the benefits on the recruiting trail, he'll enter next season sitting on perhaps college football's hottest seat. Anything less than a convincing bowl season will spell the end of the Edsall era in College Park, giving him immense pressure and no room for error. Had Maryland won seven games this year given everything that had befallen them, the storyline going into next season is "Do they turn the corner?", not "Will Edsall even survive?".
None of this is to say that Edsall is a victim, mind you. He is, after all, the head coach, and that means he's responsible for all the goings-on of the program. That doesn't mean he's responsible for bad luck, but it does mean he wasn't forced to enter the season with only three scholarship quarterbacks, two of which were true freshmen. Nor did he have to use an inexperienced Aussie rules punter at placekicker, even with Ferrara's injury. Nor does he hold no blame in the exodus of players in the past offseason that left Maryland lacking experience and depth. Nor should he and his staff be absolved of the special teams breakdowns, untimely defensive collapses, and fumbling problems that haunted Maryland throughout the season and cost them - quarterback situation, bad luck, and all - three wins.
That Maryland was in position to win games this season, despite everything going wrong, is a testament to their top-end talent (read: Diggs) and resilience, both of which Edsall deserves credit for cultivating. But the goal isn't to get in a position to win games; it's to win. And even with everything that went wrong, there were precautions Edsall and his staff could've taken - and didn't take - to guard against, or at the very least mitigate, potential disasters. (Without going into full-on typewriter coach mode, adding a JuCo/transfer quarterback or kicker may've presented more value than letting four scholarships go unused, or than adding four receiver recruits and a fifth transfer in a single year. It seems petty and reactive to say it, but roster building is a crucial part of a head coach's job.)
Edsall very, very nearly got things right this season, playing with a very limited hand. But very nearly right is still wrong. And it deserves to be said that did have his own role to play in how limited his hand was.
That being the case, it's difficult to class this season as anything other than a failure, for both Edsall and Maryland. An encouraging failure, and a failure with a lot of mitigating factors, to be sure. But a lot more than 4-8 was there for the taking, and Maryland left it on the table. Any review of the season that ignored that fact would be sugarcoating a very painful year.
That said, when you compare the season to what was expected beforehand, Maryland achieved more or less what people expected from them. They consolidated their standing with four wins (and a fairly impressive four wins at that), didn't lose more ground as a program, and set themselves up for a brighter future by making gains on the trail and bedding in young talent. It could've been so, so much more, but the basics were achieved.
And that means that there is reason to be optimistic that the future will bring happier times. Maryland loses a lot from this team, especially on defense. But they'll also have a viable quarterback (whoever it ultimately is), a sophomore Stefon Diggs, a seasoned offensive line, and another year in Brian Stewart's 3-4 scheme. Those are all upgrades of varying degrees, and they make next year's roster look better than this year's did, all things considered. If injuries don't flood in again, it's one that's more than capable of making the postseason.
That prospect greatly simplifies things for Maryland's decision-makers. If you remember back to a year ago, this same topic - Randy Edsall and the future of Maryland football - was a jumbled, depressing mess. Edsall's first year was supremely disappointing and left little reason for optimism, but his contract was lengthy and Maryland's athletic department broke. There were few attractive options, with only one - pray that Edsall turns it around and proves to be a successful coach - truly viable.
Now? Edsall has had another rough year but has set himself for a potential successful year, while Maryland heads to the Big Ten and is newly flush with cash. (Relatively speaking, of course.) The process for Kevin Anderson has become particularly simple: if Edsall makes a bowl and Maryland looks impressive - and there's plenty of reason to believe that he can do just that - Randy stays aboard. Anything less, and they make a change before making the B1G move, something they now have the financial capability of doing. It may not be a happy situation, but at the very least it's a clean one.
But if you were hoping for a resolution this year, it didn't come. We still don't know if Randy Edsall is the man for the job; nor do we know that he'll be replaced anytime soon. But for a situation that seemed hopeless last year, there's a distinct optimism that, sooner or later, things will get resolved. This year didn't fix many problems, necessarily, and in some ways created a few when it comes to roster or game management.
The biggest of those problems, though, will end up fixing themselves. Some foresight would've been nice, sure, but the past is the past. And going forward, things like quarterback depth and the kicking game shouldn't be nearly as big of issues as they were this season. That means there's some reason to be positive going ahead. This roster is built to win and it's good enough to win now. If it doesn't, then with three years run off Edsall's contract and Big Ten money about to pour in, Maryland will be able to make a change.
So no, there wasn't a resolution this year. But at least there's a promise of one by this time next year. I'm not sold on Randy Edsall, but that's irrelevant. Whether or not he's the man to lead Maryland forward, he'll get one more chance to prove it, and there's no reason he can't be successful. He's burned opportunities in the past, arguably including this year, but he's put himself and his team in a position to win a lot of games in the upcoming season.
Now it's just up to him - and his staff, and his players - to go out and do as much. Because he's not likely to get another chance.