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In year four under Mike Locksley, Maryland football is on the verge of a breakthrough

The Terps are 4-1 entering a string of winnable Big Ten games.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Maryland at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Throughout Mike Locksley’s tenure as head coach at Maryland, each season has been a familiar routine for fans.

The season starts with optimistic — but tempered — expectations, and the team beats up on a weak nonconference schedule as excitement builds for a big game against a highly-ranked opponent.

Then, Maryland gets walloped. Fans rush to their phones to google the date of the first basketball game. From a fan engagement perspective, the season is more or less over.

This was the case in 2019, when Penn State came to College Park and obliterated the Terps, 59-0. It was the same story last season, when Maryland lost to Iowa and Ohio State by a combined 86 points after a 4-0 start, parlayed with season-ending injuries to wide receivers Dontay Demus Jr. and Jeshaun Jones.

The opportunities have come this season — Locksley’s fourth — to fall back on old habits.

After starting 3-0, the Terps could’ve hung their heads against Michigan — the fourth-ranked team in the country — when the opening kickoff clunked off the facemask of Tai Felton and was recovered by the Wolverines, who took the lead fewer than 10 seconds into the game. They could’ve done the same when Michigan was awarded one, maybe two interceptions that clearly hit the ground. Instead, they battled to just a seven-point loss against an elite program on the road.

They could’ve sulked when a pick-six was overturned on a phantom personal foul the next week against Michigan State. They responded by blocking a field goal and shutting the Spartans out for the final 30 minutes of the game.

When Locksley runs down his list of talking points and says that each game is “Terps vs. Terps” and that he is trying to “close the gap” between his program and the Big Ten’s best, this is what he means. It’s about changing the mindset of Maryland fans, relieving them of the anxiety of waiting for something to go wrong rather than hoping for things to go right.

In the days leading up to games against the Ohio States, the Michigans and the Penn States of the world, the team has had to answer questions inferring that a win for the program would simply be not getting run off the field.

What Locksley has impressively done, though, is instill a real sense of belief in his players that they aren’t just showing up to keep it close or improve their own personal draft stock. They’re there to win. At Big Ten Football Media Day prior to the season, all three Maryland players in attendance — Taulia Tagovailoa, Rakim Jarrett and Jakorian Bennett — all said that the expectation this season was to win a conference championship.

It goes without saying that this year’s Maryland team is almost assuredly not going to actually achieve that goal. But that’s not what it’s really about, is it? In recent years, no collection of Terps could have realistically given that answer without bursting out in laughter. That’s progress, and it’s beginning to show itself on the field.

“We all had the belief that we were going in to cause a big upset, but obviously it didn’t turn out how we wanted it to be,” said offensive lineman Spencer Anderson, who’s been with the program for five years, after the Michigan loss. “I feel like the confidence is there. I feel like in my past four years being here, we kinda just went in moping around, but I feel like we had the right confidence today.”

“I’ve been believing [Locksley’s] vision since day one ... Everything he told me, it was just a simple fact. Bringing the right guys in, bringing the team together as a family, coming together to be playing as one,” senior defensive back Isaiah Hazel said, echoing Anderson. “I feel like this year is, like, we’re doing that, and our leaders are stepping up.”

The beauty of college football is that it’s all relative. Maryland’s goals are not Alabama’s which are not UConn’s (no disrespect to the Huskies, who recently picked up their first FBS win since 2019). If the Crimson Tide lose two games in a season, debates are had about whether or not Nick Saban has lost his touch. If Maryland loses just two games in a season, there’ll be a figurative parade down Baltimore Avenue.

All of the sudden, a special 2022 season doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Sitting at 4-1, Maryland is favored at home this week against Purdue. It’ll be favored the following two weeks against Indiana and Northwestern.

A clean sweep of those three would leave the Terps sitting at 7-1 entering November, having secured bowl eligibility by Oct. 15. For reference, Maryland has made four bowl games over the past 10 years, not reaching that threshold until an average date of Nov. 21, the last or at best second-to-last week of the season. The last time the Terps were bowl eligible by mid-October was over two decades ago in 2001.

When Locksley talks about “taking the next step,” this is where it happens. It happens these next three weeks before a bye week sets up a challenging three-game stretch — at Wisconsin, at Penn State and a home game against Ohio State — in the final month of the season before the regular season finale against Rutgers.

Taking the next step is no longer having the success of every season predicated on a game against Rutgers where the winner gets an invitation to a frigid bowl game in a baseball stadium against a team that fired its coach for being there (that’s not to disparage the Pinstripe Bowl, flags fly forever). Everything — as previously stated — is relative, however, and a bowl win was certainly a step in the right direction for a program without one since 2010.

If Maryland can string together a series of wins this month and have bowl eligibility in tow just after the halfway point of the season, it’ll be a resounding success that would help vindicate all the time and effort that Locksley has put into changing the dismal culture that he inherited.

Of course, he would tell you it’s just a starting point.

“One of the things that’s been rewarding and encouraging for me is just how these guys have really bought into everything we’ve asked them to do as coaches, and the player-led culture, you’re starting to see it come to fruition,” Locksley said. “I really enjoy coaching these guys. You know, in year four, this is where we want to be. What we’ve got to do is take it one week at a time and really put the work in Monday through Friday. Good things tend to happen Saturday when you do that and I think they’ve embraced that philosophy.”

Sure, the season isn’t yet halfway over. Maryland could very well roll over and fall apart like it has many times before. But it’s an exciting exercise to dream about what could be, and for the first time in a while, those dreams may not just be wishful thinking. This team has everything sitting in front of it to put together one of the most successful seasons the program has had in a long time.

There’s still a lot for this team to prove. But the early returns on the investment the university and Locksley have made into the program are encouraging.

Only time will tell if its stock will continue to rise.

“I can tell you my phone’s been ringing off the hook with, you know, all these people asking for tickets now all of a sudden,” Locksley said. “I’ll tell them ‘Hey, if you weren’t here from the start, don’t call me now.’”