It's funny how four relatively nondescript games can change so heavily the way we look at things.
A 2-2 start usually isn't remarkable, positively or negatively, for any team in the country, save maybe the Alabamas and USCs of the world (or the Armys, for very different reasons). Especially when the games seem as pedestrian as the Maryland Terrapins' first four: a 7-6 win over William and Mary drew a raised eyebrow or two (of the negative variety), while a 9-point win over (a now-struggling) Temple and a 3-point home loss to (a now-equally-struggling) UConn barely made the highlight shows. And speaking of highlight shows, the Terrapins got ignored by them again after a 10-point loss at West Virginia - a small enough margin that it was far from embarrassing for the visitors, but drew little enough concern from the chattering classes. Words like "rolls" and "pounds" were used by many to describe how WVU treated Maryland.
Point is, to the national media and the majority of fans across the country, nothing's changed for Maryland football: they're still nearly non-existent, still a butt of Randy Edsall jokes (occasionally deservedly) and uniform gags (never deserved; y'all just hatin').
But for those who've paid attention - you, probably, and me - who've watched all the games and seen the details, something very different has happened: expectations have risen. A bye week is always a good time to reassess the season, especially when it falls where Maryland's does - smack-dab between the end of the non-conference slate and the start of the conference schedule. And if you do, you'll probably notice the same thing I did: you're a lot more confident right now than you were a month ago.
Personally, I said before the year that five wins was what it'd take for me to consider this year successful; that win total no longer seems fanciful, but utterly realistic - maybe even able to exceeded. It may not be likely, but there's a significant chance at it, something that I didn't believe at the start of the year. All of a sudden, this season seems very much worth watching.
One of the big reasons for this feeling is that Maryland has improved every game they've played. Due to their youth, they had - and still have - more room to grown than the vast majority of teams. Upperclassmen like Michael Rocco, Tevin Washington, Mike Glennon, Andre Ellington, Alex Amidon - they largely are what they are at this point of their careers. Each snap they take does very little, bordering on nothing, for them. But for every snap Perry Hills, Wes Brown, and Stefon Diggs takes, they gain a world of experience, face a situation they'd never faced and learn how to deal with it for the future. By the time Maryland plays North Carolina in Chapel Hill in late November, they'll look and play nothing like the team that walked out in Byrd Stadium on Sept. 1 to play William and Mary.
Straight-line progression won't happen; it almost never does. But, aside from a few hiccups, you should expect to see steady and consistent improvement week-to-week.
And we've already seen that happen, to some degree: consider that Maryland went from coming thisclose to getting blanked by an FCS team, to arguably outplaying a top-ten team, the highest-ranked in the Big 12, at their own place ... barely a month later.
Of course, not every game will necessarily be played with that intensity; it was, after all, a rivalry game played on national TV with snazzy new uniforms. But if anything, this year's Maryland Terrapins showed that despite their inexperience, their lack of depth, the injuries and cries of dismay, they can stay with almost anyone in the country on their day. They ultimately lost, because when a team plays a more talented opponent on the road, the margin for error is slim-to-none, and Maryland's too young to not make errors. But against Wake Forest at home? Against Boston College and N.C. State? They'll have a much wider berth.
But there's one more big factor: the team's mentality. Cynics (read: grizzled Maryland fans) may question this optimism, noting that the danger of a locker room collapse can always be right around the corner. And it makes some measure of sense, too. One team already quit on Randy Edsall. Why not another?
Well, it could happen. I'm no psychic, nor am I in the locker room. Maybe Edsall is the most toxic coach in college football, and he can't hold a team together. But I doubt it. Edsall showed at Uconn he can command a locker room, so long as he has the right type of player. And the players who would quit on Edsall at Maryland already did quit on Edsall at Maryland. They're at Delaware or Florida or somewhere else. What remains are the players who know what they're getting, and are willing to fight - or at least play - for their coach.
Don't believe me? Look at the first four games. In each, Maryland had a golden opportunity to fold; not once did they take it. Compare that to last year: the loss to Temple was a lesson in snowballing, ending the first quarter down 21-0 and not looking a thing like a football team until more than a half-hour later. Against Virginia and Notre Dame and Wake Forest, too, things started to go bad and that was that. And when N.C. State and Clemson started their huge comebacks, well, that was that too; they seemed like a foregone conclusion after the first few cracks and, in fact, proved to be.
This year, they went into the fourth quarter scoreless against an FCS team, which has to be the confidence-draining gut punch of all confidence-draining gut punches. But they still fought and eventually got a breakthrough in the final ten minutes to ensure a win: an ugly, unimpressive, lackluster win - but still a win. And against Temple, when the Owls went on a 24-3 tear in the second half to all but erase Maryland's once-substantial lead, I had flashbacks to N.C. State. Instead of repeating that, Maryland settled down, regrouped, and scored a crucial 4th quarter touchdown to seal the win. Against UConn? They gave up 14 straight to start the game off. Sulk? Nope; fight back and make a game of it by halftime. UConn score another couple of times in the second half? No problem; do it again. The same against West Virginia: start off 14-0 on the road? Fight back and tie it in the second quarter. Go down three scores with only eight minutes left in the 4th? Score a touchdown, then get in position for another before an unlucky fumble. Many called the game after that final Tavon Austin touchdown. They were almost made to look like fools.
It's impossible to truly know the character of a team, and this isn't conclusive proof that a collapse isn't imminent. But it provides very good reason to believe that this team has the fight to not fall apart mid-season, even if a few results don't go their way. And if they don't, and if Maryland gets better as they're expected to, and if they show that the first few performances weren't flukes, those who expected a 2- or 3-win season (me included) might be in for a pleasant surprise.
We'll know soon whether or not that's on the cards, because Maryland's next four games are the easiest and most winnable contests still on the schedule. This is the crucial stretch of their season; it will define their year without doubt, and, if it goes particularly well or particularly poorly, it could come to help define Randy Edsall's tenure in College Park. So let's take a closer look:
vs. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (3-1), Oct. 6th. The Deacs have enjoyed a somewhat surprising start to the year, and could be 4-1 when this game takes place (Duke's next up on the schedule). They upset UNC by a point in the second week of the season, and also beat cupcakes Liberty and Army to boost their record. The bad news: they got absolutely rocked by Florida State (no great shame), and seriously struggled with Liberty, winning by only three, and Army, needing a second-half comeback. Struggling in the season opener is one thing, but to be doing the same thing a month later isn't encouraging. Wake will likely be favored, but Maryland, with an entire bye week to prepare and work in some new wrinkles, will have an excellent chance.
@ Virginia Cavaliers (2-2), Oct. 13th. This is one of the most intriguing games on the schedule for me, and one of the sneakily important ones. With how well Virginia is doing in recruiting the Maryland area (see: Garner, Kirk and Kiser, Micah), the Terrapins need to make a statement about where the two programs stand. The Cavs, after an encouraging start topping Richmond and a neutered-but-not-awful Penn State, ran into two buzzsaws in the form of Georgia Tech and TCU, losing by a combined 83-27. They go into this weekend's home game against Louisiana Tech as 3-point 'dogs, followed by a somewhat tricky road game to Duke. They could easily be 4-2 and riding a high, or 2-4 and on the brink of a collapse. They're in the bottom 3 of the ACC so far in both scoring defense and scoring offense, are the only team in the conference with a turnover margin as low as Maryland's, and are in the middle of a QB controversy.
vs. N.C. State Wolfpack (3-1), Oct. 20th. The Wuffies had a rough game to start things off, losing to Tennessee in the opener. But they rebounded with a 3-point win over UConn on the road and beat cupcakes South Alabama and the Citadel. But their next two games are at Miami and against Florida State, so it wouldn't be at all surprising if they came into this one 3-3. Maryland winning at least one, preferably two, of their previous games could be a big factor here: this is the homecoming game, and being at least .500 coming into it will ensure a big and at least somewhat raucous crowd.
@ Boston College Eagles (1-2), Oct. 27th. BC might be playing the same role the Terps did last year. Between now and late October, BC will host Clemson before playing three straight on the road, including trips to Florida State and Georgia Tech. If they're lucky they'll enter this game 2-5, maybe 1-6, and Frank Spaziani - liked and respected at least as minimally as Edsall - will have his hands full trying to get his guys play for a likely dead man walking. This is the type of game Maryland needs to be winning.
To recap: you have a team who's struggled against cupcakes as much as Maryland has, a team embroiled in a QB controversy and underdogs to a WAC program this weekend, a team that played UConn about the same as Maryland did, and the odds-on favorite to be this season what Maryland was last year. Will they be favored in any of those, save maybe BC? Unlikely, unless they can rattle off some quick wins. But not a single game is an unreasonable task.
Now, what follows might be considered so. Georgia Tech at home isn't a killer, especially if Maryland comes into it with some momentum, but it's still a big ask. Same goes for the road game to Clemson; they look mighty good this year, but as long as Clemson is still Clemson they can Clemson it up - especially against Maryland, who's been a traditional bad-luck charm for the Tigers. And then there's Florida State, who will likely be a top-five team; even if it's at home, just hold out and pray things don't get out of hand. I don't care about winning a single game of that stretch, as nice as it may be; it's just about holding on and trying not to lose all momentum heading into a big season-ender against UNC.
Because that game against the Heels, even if it's on the road, looks like a winnable one this far out. UNC stands at 2-2 this year, having dropped road games to Wake and Louisville and beating mighty Elon and ECU. Some thought 4-0 was feasible, but the loss to the Deacs has shown that a team with Maryland's talent could be in that contest, too.
So, five winnable games. Get three of them and I'll brand the season an unabashed success. Four, and Maryland sneaks into an unlikely bowl game - Military, probably and hopefully, to keep up with the local recruiting tour de force - during what was universally considered a rebuilding year. If that happens, Mike Locksley will clean up on the trail and there will be a lot of confused - or, perhaps, not at all confused - feelings about Randy Edsall in College Park.
I am not expecting a bowl game, mind you. If lines were made right now for the rest of the games on the schedule, Maryland would probably be underdogs in every one, and not unreasonably. This team is still too young, probably. Too much inexperience. They're lacking too many crucial pieces, mainly in the secondary and the offensive line. And as I mentioned before, expecting straight-line progression is asking for disappointment; bumps in the road are inevitable. Four, maybe five wins seems the more likely proposition.
But anyone who's still writing off the season as a two- or even three-win clunker hasn't been watching. (Or is very, very smart, if it actually happens. But probably the former.) And I'm a point where even a six-win year legitimately would not surprise me anymore.
I'm not trying to be a homer or blind optimist here. Trust me: Maryland's program isn't out of the woods, and there are still problems to deal with. But at least for this week, there's some real and deserved optimism that things might just be alright after all.