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What the “next step” looks like for Maryland football

Maryland won a bowl game last season for the first time since 2010, so what does the next step look like for this program on the rise?

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

Maryland football head coach Mike Locksley took a program riddled with controversy and disappointment and has brought it to a place it hasn't been in since it entered the Big Ten: relevance.

The preseason national hype surrounding Maryland is real. Maryland returns eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters from a team that won the school’s first bowl game in over a decade.

The Terps have a gun-slinging quarterback, an elite wide receiver room, an experienced offensive line, a consistent kicker and continuity on the offensive coaching staff. The scoring offense — ranked fourth in the conference last season — should be one of the best in the Big Ten, if not the entire country. Sure, the defense has holes, but it is still experienced and returns a ton of guys who suffered injuries a year ago.

Maryland has everything in place to build on a successful 2021 and take the next step toward national prominence. The “next step” is a phrase Maryland coaches and players have preached all offseason as they prepare for the 2022 season. But what exactly is the next step for Maryland football?

If last season produced a .500 record and a bowl win, a leap this season should seemingly be more than a bowl appearance and a .500 regular season record.

The next step is contending with the top teams in the Big Ten East — and the country — and beating the teams it has struggled to overcome since it entered the conference in 2014.

As Locksley builds his program, the goal is to take it from relevancy to national prominence. That won’t happen unless Maryland can compete with the best in perhaps the toughest conference in the country.

Last season Maryland beat Illinois, Indiana and Rutgers. The Terps lost, though, to Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. Those latter four teams are consistently toward the top of the rankings and the Terps are forced to play them most, if not every year.

Maryland lost to those four teams by a combined score of 126 points. Is it fair Maryland is tasked with playing in the Big Ten East? Probably not, but that’s no excuse and Locksley sure isn't looking for any.

The next step this season is to beat a team it has struggled against since it joined the conference and prove Maryland’s talent is right there with anybody. Maryland is 2-6 against Penn State — with one of the wins in an empty stadium during a shortened 2020 season — since joining the conference, 1-7 vs. Michigan, 1-6 vs. Michigan State and 0-7 against Ohio State.

The first step to building a successful program is winning recruiting battles. Locksley, long known in college football circles as a phenomenal recruiter, has built great recruiting classes the last few years.

Maryland’s last three recruiting classes have an average rank of 5.6 among 14 Big Ten schools, according to 247Sports. The operation Locksley has built at Maryland attracts talent, specifically local talent, to represent the red and white. The next step to building a distinguished program is beating worthy foes between the lines.

“I think what we’ve got to do with the expectations we set for ourselves is play to the best of our ability, and if we do that we’re a pretty talented team,” Locksley said. “But talent doesn’t get it done, going out and executing does.”

This year, with more expectation surrounding the program than it has received since Locksley came on board, is the year to take that next step that awaits.

Locksley has been asked on numerous occasions about getting his group to a level where they can compete with the best in the Big Ten. He remains adamant that the key to beating those teams is to ensure Maryland doesn't beat itself first, which he’s identified as the problem against good opponents.

“I know people say we want to close the gap between the top teams, and we’ve got a tough league, we understand that, but it’s still going to be more about what we do than it is what they do,” Locksley said.

The Terps’ motto is “the best is ahead.” If the best is ahead, Maryland will need to beat the best. Maryland football has arrived onto the national scene. It’s time to show it to the rest of the country.