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Maryland-Penn State doesn't have to be a 'rivalry' for Saturday's game to be huge

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If you’re focused on whether or not these teams are rivals, you’re missing the point.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

In the two years since Maryland football joined the Big Ten, the Terps and Penn State have traded one-point victories. The teams also have some other history that we’re all probably tired of discussing:

In 2014, their first year in the Big Ten, the Terps went in to Happy Valley after the whole handshake incident and left with a 20-19 win. This pretty quickly led to some “rivalry” talk, a fire then-Terps coach Randy Edsall gladly stoked. Last season’s game was equally close, as the Terps turned the ball over four times in the fourth quarter and Penn State eked out a 31-30 win at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Calling it a rivalry after two years is obviously premature, but it had the makings of one.

This doesn’t have to mean anything for this 2016 team. The Terps are 4-0, but Penn State (3-2) is their first tough opponent this season. Coming off a blowout win over Purdue, we still don’t know what Maryland is. Saturday’s game will help us figure out what kind of team we’re dealing with.

This game matters, and not because we all came together and decided that two teams are “rivals.”

Maryland and Penn State aren’t “rivals.” That’s okay.

I’m not too keen on delving into what arbitrary factors make two teams rivals. One of those things is probably history. While they’ve played 39 times, Maryland and Penn State don’t have an exciting or recent history. Maryland has won exactly two of those 39 games. Before 2014, they hadn’t played football against each other for 20 years. But when Maryland joined the Big Ten, the school really pushed this whole rivalry thing.

This made sense. A potential Maryland-Penn State rivalry would be fun on a couple levels. Plus, Rutgers was the only other team with proximity, and no one wants to be rivals with Rutgers.

Fans rightfully cried out, “Don’t force these things! Rivalries take time!”

It seems like DJ Durkin agrees. He was very careful not to play into any rivalry talk to the media this week.

“Any time you’re playing a team with a roster where some guys may know each other or played against each other somewhere along the line in high school football, there’s some more to it when you know those faces a little better,” Durkin said. “But other than that, that’s based on them. It’s a Big Ten East matchup for us.”

He referred to the game over and over again as a “Big Ten East matchup” and a “conference road matchup.” Durkin knew what questions were coming, and he wasn’t having any of it. Neither were his players.

“I don’t pay much attention to that, because we’re new to the Big Ten and it’s our third time facing Penn State, so it’s not like it’s a tenured rivalry like Ohio State-Michigan, so I don’t pay much attention to that,” defensive end Azubuike Ukandu said.

“We don’t like to really get too much into that,” said left guard Mike Minter. “We like to let the fans and the game speak for that one. It’s always a fun game. We’ve always had really close, really good games.”

Here’s how Maryland quarterback Perry Hills, a Pittsburgh native, responded when asked if this game meant more than any other:

“I dislike everyone equally.”

But no matter what the players say, this isn’t just another Big Ten East matchup.

These teams have a whole lot in common.

Let’s start with Penn State head coach James Franklin. He was Maryland’s offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting back in 2010, when the school hired Kevin Anderson as its new athletic director. Anderson said he couldn’t guarantee Franklin’s position as head coach-in-waiting, and Franklin took the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. When he took the Penn State job, Franklin wasn’t shy about his intentions. He declared Maryland “in-state territory,” and the Terps have had to fight him off for recruits ever since. Each time the teams play, you can bet a lot of high-schoolers will be watching.

Penn State swooped in to grab the top 2016 recruit in the state of Maryland, DeMatha linebacker Shane Simmons. The Nittany Lions also signed Ellison Jordan, the state’s No. 6 recruit. Before that, Adam McLean, Maryland’s second-ranked recruit in 2015, committed to Penn State before flipping to Maryland. While everyone is downplaying things this week, McLean’s clearly excited.

Penn State only has one Maryland commit so far in the 2017 class in wideout Cameron Sullivan-Brown, but that number could still go up.

This could end up being the biggest game of Maryland’s season.

Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ranks Penn State as the 38th-best team in the country, and puts Maryland at No. 40. Maryland’s facing its first bona fide star in Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions are missing their entire starting linebacker group, but they still have a solid secondary and defensive line that could give the Terps trouble.

A win on Saturday could have recruiting implications, sure, but it could directly impact what happens for Maryland this season. A 5-0 start going into back-to-back home games against Minnesota and Michigan State? Bowl eligibility would be a near-certainty, boosters would be through the roof and planning on a DJ Durkin statue might begin immediately.