*As promised, the more optimistic side of last week's post about potential Ralph replacements.*
Okay, I've been sufficiently realistic and even started looking for Maryland's head coaching candidates a year before they'll actually need them.
But if Maryland can just pull out 6 or 7 wins, those four hours of research will be for naught. And even if that figure is a little bit dream-worthy and pie-in-the-sky, there are some reasons that Maryland could be at least decent next year, and certainly better than what the ACC writers pegged them at.
An easy schedule. If Maryland ever truly needed an easy schedule, it'd be this year. The Terps have one winnable, if difficult, game to start the season, one unlikely game (West Virginia), and two gimmees for a non-conference slate. Plus, they get to avoid Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech - traditionally the two best teams in the ACC - in the conference games.
They do have to play Miami and UNC, both of which could get ugly. But ultimately, an inter-division schedule that includes the two above, Virginia, and Duke isn't bad at all.
In fact, when you break it down, the schedule works out moderately favorably (considering Maryland's position). There's the potential of being 3-1 entering conference play if they can take care of business against Florida International and Morgan State and win the 50-50 game against Navy. That might be unlikely - remember MTSU, let alone the prospect of beating Navy - but it's far from improbable.
Then they'd only need three conference wins to find a bowl game; Virginia, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, and Clemson (Maryland is Clemson's kryptonite) are all winnable conference games. Just get three out of the four truly winnable games or grab an upset, and UMD is bowl-bound, even though they'd beat almost no imposing teams.
They've gotta win some close games soon, right? Sure, you can say that Maryland only won two games last year because James Madison's and Clemson's field goal kickers were bad, and they were - both missed game-tying or -winning FGs late in the game.
But Maryland also lost plenty of close ones themselves. In fact, if the above two games remained the same and Maryland simply prevented the improbable, the Terps would've challenged for a bowl game.
Some examples: a Chris Turner pass bounces off Davin Meggett's foot and into the hands of a Middle Tennessee State defender; the Blue Raiders scored five plays later in a game that had a final margin of a point. A Virginia defensive tackle intercepts Chris Turner and returns it for a touchdown; the only other TD UVA scored that day was with 1:00 left after Maryland missed a 4th down on their own 1 yard line. Florida State won on a 42 yard WR reverse. BC scored on a 66-yard TD reception on 3rd and 17 - their longest pass play of the year. Duke won on a one-handed grab by their TE in the corner of the endzone on a 4th and one.
I could go on, if you wanted to. Alex Wucjiak agrees with me, for what it's worth:
Whether it be school work or working out, just finish. Obviously last season there weren't too many games that we actually finished. There were probably three games last year that we actually lost, where the other team was better than us. But other games throughout, we were in those games. So I think if we learn how to finish, we can turn it around.
Eventually, that's gotta get better. Whether it's plain regression to the mean, luck, or a newfound attention to detail thanks to last year's struggles, it's reasonable to expect Maryland to do a little bit better in those close games.
Maybe they can stay healthy. A quick list of the injuries Maryland suffered last year: starting quarterback, starting running back, starting left tackle, starting right guard, starting outside linebacker, starting cornerback, starting strong safety, and starting punter. Oh, by the way, that accounted for four of Maryland's five best players at the time (only Alex Wujciak made it out alive).
I hate the Ralph Friedgen "injuries" excuse, but that is out of the ordinary in terms of number of injuries. If it's reasonable next year, maybe having their top CB, top RB, and starting LT might account for a win or two.
Another year in Don Brown's defense. Maryland's defense wasn't great last year (#83 in the nation) but it was still 19 spots better than their offense (#102 in the nation). And hey, there were some real positives for the defense, like the 41st ranked 27 sacks, a result of Maryland's attacking style.
But that's still mediocre at best, and Maryland had plenty of worse defensive stats, like their 105th ranked pass defense efficiency or their 18 turnovers, good for just 89th in the nation.
But there is good news: there's plenty of reason to believe that Maryland's defense should be improved this year. Most importantly, it's the second year the defense has been with Don Brown. That means more familiarity with the scheme and thus more confidence and a smoother game. As Alex Wujciak says:
"In our second year, we all have a better understanding of it. Everything has slowed down for us. We know what everyone else is doing," Wujciak said. "I think we'll see results."
That makes sense. With more familiarity, players know where each other on the field, know their assignments, and thought can change to reaction.
There are more reasons the defense should improve, though. For one, Alex Wujciak's knee is finally right. For another, there's a new influx of talent, with Marcus Whitfield, Dexter McDougle, De'Onte Arnett, and Travis Hawkins shedding their redshirts and David Mackall likely to forego his (Titus Till is a possibility, too).
Even more importantly, there's actually a bit of continuity. Terrell Skinner, Jamari McCollough, Anthony Wiseman, Travis Ivey and Deege Galt were the only starters that graduated; for every case except Ivey, Maryland has a similarly (or more) talented new starter: Kenny Tate, Antwine Perez, Dexter McDougle, and Justin Anderson. Three of those players received major playing time and actually started at least one game last year, so it's not nearly as bad as it may seem.
Maryland's defense may never be good enough to win games for them. But I'll be surprised if it doesn't at least get up to "average."
Natural improvement could create some stars. Piggybacking off the last point, most of the players that were there last year should be even better. Demetrius Hartsfield, who was awesome in his first year, should be even better. Same goes for Cameron Chism. Same goes for Tate and A.J. Francis.
The case is the same for the offensive guys. Torrey Smith should get national recognition. Ronnie Tyler may finally be consistent. Maybe Davin Meggett will finally be a consistent starter-level player.
Basically, Maryland has a lot players that have looked good in the past that, with seasoning, could now become impact players. That's the same case for a lot of programs, but some teams lost their best players last year; Maryland's should be hitting their peak this year.
Could the offensive line actually be a little better? Good question. Theoretically, it should be about the same. Sure, guys like R.J. Dill, Justin Lewis, and Bennett Fulper now have experience, but the anchors of the line - Bruce Campbell and Phil Costa - have left the program.
But during the spring game - which was, last year, an exhibition of defensive destruction - the OL allowed just one sack in 46 passing attempts. Whether that's a sign of defensive regression or maybe Don Brown dialing it back I don't know, but it can't be a bad sign.
In particular, there are some strengths along the line. R.J. Dill is now a second-year starter, and should be greatly improved. Bennett Fulper looked very good when he was playing. Paul Pinegar and Andrew Gonnella are serviceable.
And honestly, that's all that the offensive line needs to be: serviceable, good enough. If they can improve from last year, Maryland has enough skill at WR and RB to provide at least some dynamism on offense.
Fewer sacks, too. It was all too common last year for Maryland to have a great drive going only to be stifled by a momentum-killing sack. In fact, sacks, along with penalties, do more to hurt a drive than anything else. Maryland should know that well.
This is semi-related to the above bullet point, the offensive line. But might part of the sacks problem last year have been the slow-footed Chris Turner? For all of Turner's strengths, running wasn't one of them.
When Turner left, the faster Jamarr Robinson was able to evade tacklers and turn sacks into yardage far more often than Turner, at least anecdotally. The stats don't exactly say the same thing: Chris Turner was sacked once every 11.2 pass attempts; Robinson, once every 9.4.
Robinson, of course, had a much smaller sample size, and was messed up by the Virginia Tech game, which consisted of an eye-bulging six sacks thanks to VT's strong, attacking defense. If you were to take that game out of the equation, Robinson's attempt/sack ratio would be significantly better than Turner's, at one sack every 17.7 attempts.
Now, that's statistically misleading, too, because it would include two of the worst defenses in the ACC in N.C. State and Florida State. But if the offensive line is better and Jamarr Robinson can evade sacks better than Turner, then maybe there will be fewer drive-killing plays.
Somebody's gotta get better. Patrick Stevens broke down that about a week ago; basically, someone in the ACC will likely get at least four games better. And hey, why not Maryland?
The hot seat. Pressure can force anyone into doing unexpected things, and coaches are included in that. This is the first time that Ralph Friedgen and James Franklin are entering a season with the possibility - actually, probability - of being fired at the end of it. If that hits hard, you never know how they could respond. Hopefully, it'd be positively - think the "contract year" effect.
Unfortunately, that rarely works, because coaching is mental and has little to do with effort. And coaches generally find themselves on the hot seat because they're not very good coaches. Hopefully Friedgen is an exception. If he isn't, he'll be finding a new home next year.