Maryland has a lot going against it in their season opener against Navy: the Midshipmen's star QB Ricky Dobbs, the traditionally difficult-to-stop triple option, the still-inexperienced offensive line Maryland's sporting. But maybe a history of slow starts factors into that equation as well.
It's a widely-held assumption that Maryland under Ralph Friedgen has fallen victim to slow starts throughout his time at the helm, and there are more than a few examples to prove it. Because of that, Navy's advantage in the bettors' mind should be more than a little imposing for the Terps.
Like yesterday, I set out to make this a storyline, and the data didn't really do what I wanted it to do. This time, though, I feel more comfortable assuming that numbers can lie, at least a little, in the face of more anecdotal or specific evidence.
The logical place to start to see if Maryland really is a slow starter is in their first game. Since Ralph Friedgen arrived at Maryland, the result of the first game, Maryland's record that season, and the opponent's record that season:
|Result||L - Cal, 13-52||W - Delaware, 14-7||W - Villanova, 31-7||W - W&M, 27-14||W - Navy, 23-20||W - N. Ill., 23-20||L - N. Ill., 13-20||L - Notre Dame, 0-22||W - UNC, 23-7|
For a team with a record of slow starts, 6-3 doesn't seem all that bad. But it's worse than it looks. A 3-point win over Northern Illinois and a 7-point win over Delaware certainly weren't what Maryland was looking for in those games, and it's pretty safe to qualify those as "slow starts". The same arguably goes for William and Mary. And the Cal and Notre Dame games to start the year were both bona fide terrible. Heck, Maryland was a 21 point underdog to Cal and that would've been a blessing of a margin.
But that's also misleading because only the first game is accounted for. Both of the Middle Tennessee St. losses, for example, came later in the season (2nd and 3rd games), but still early enough to fall into the "slow start" category.
For another look, how about the winning percentages in the first four games vs. the last eight or so?
For every year except 2003 and 2002, Maryland's fared better in the early games than the later ones. But don't mistake that for positive performance. Generally, Maryland faces two easy games, one medium-difficulty game, and one legitimately difficult game. Anything under a 75% winning percentage is pretty easily classified as a slow start.
Still, it all sounds much more convincing with anecdotal evidence. Maryland was supposed to at least compete against Cal last year and didn't stay close. They barely edged out JMU and lost to MTSU last year. Then there was the 2008 year, in which they eked out a win over a not-great Delaware team and followed that up with a loss to MTSU. Of course, they would turn around to beat Cal and win 8 games that year.
In 2003, Maryland had the famous Northern Illinois upset and then lost to Florida State before turning it around and losing only one more game all year, a low-scoring affair against Georgia Tech. The same applies to 2002, when Maryland was demolished by Notre Dame in the opener and Florida State in the third game, but lost only one more game all season, an upset at UVA.
Then again, they've also had their fair share of better starts. In 2005, Maryland beat both Navy and Wake Forest, and played Clemson close in the second game on their way to a 4-2 start. They obviously had a rougher, 1-4 finish, though most of the games were close. In 2004, Maryland hung on against N. Illinois, then demolished two bad Temple and Duke teams and came a field goal away from beating West Virginia. Then the bottom fell out with a 2-5 finish.
But what really stands out in strong or slow starts are big wins or big losses. Since Maryland's surprise season in 2001, Maryland has lost four games they were supposed to win in the first four games of the season, at least if the bettors (and common sense) have any say - games like MTSU and Northern Illinois. On the other hand, they've won only one game they were supposed to lose in the first four games - Cal in 2008. And though they're picked to win more than they're picked to lose thanks to the schedule, there have been plenty of upset chances - at least one or two a year. In short, Maryland's much more likely to be upset than they are to upset another team.
That's really where the "slow start" stigma comes from; there's only one case of Maryland surprising critics instead of being surprised, and even that came after a seven point win over Delaware and a loss to Middle Tennessee State.
The next question that needs to be asked, of course, is why this is and how it can be avoided, if it can be avoided at all? As someone who's not in the clubhouse, it's tough to gauge answers to either of those questions. When the trend spans a decade, though, the logical conclusion is that it's a coaching problem regarding motivation and preparation. Overlooking the team is probably another cause. On the surface, they seem like easily correctable problems, but habits are tough to break.
It needs to be noted, though, that Maryland's ratio of early upset losses to early upset wins of 4:1 isn't exactly bottom of the barrel. No, it's not great, but four upset losses in the first four games over eight years...well, it could be a lot worse. It's more disconcerting, to me at least, that they have so much trouble upsetting other teams early on.
Maryland's not been the fastest of starters over the years. It'll be interesting to see if Friedgen, now with a decade of experience, can beat the tradition to finally save his job. If history's any indication, it'd be smart to temper your expectations in the opener.