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Maryland football’s 2017 season showed some promise, but finished on a low point

Our postseason outlook on the Maryland football program.

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

Preseason predictions are as much a part of college football as the games themselves. Tons of people make them. Most of them picked Maryland to win somewhere between three and five games this year, with the optimistic ones forecasting six. The Terps won four, which isn’t a surprising number in this context.

Football is weird, though. Every win floods a fan base with hope, and every loss delivers a linebacker-esque lick of despair. The line between these things is thin. Even though the bounces will in theory even out over the course of a season, some are more fortunate or catastrophic than others. The football itself is designed to bounce in whatever direction it damn well pleases, just for maximum chaos.

Of course Maryland wasn’t going to have a chaos-free football season. This much was clear in the first quarter of the first game, when the Terps threw a pick-six on their first play from scrimmage and somehow had a lead on the road against a ranked opponent just minutes later. They led 27-7 in the middle of the second quarter. They won 51-41, even after losing suddenly-blossoming quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome to what was later revealed to be a torn ACL. Suddenly, Maryland was relevant.

The next game was against an FCS team, and it didn’t matter that a true freshman quarterback was making his first start. Kasim Hill was a stud. The Terps scored 63 points that day, their most in 63 years. They entered the bye week with more points scored than offensive plays run. “EXCESSIVE JUICE” signs were everywhere.

And then Hill tore his ACL in the first quarter of the next game. Nothing was really the same after that.

Instead, it was the season of Max Bortenschlager, who was neither the cornerstone of Maryland’s future nor its present. He was just the best signal caller left after two guys tore their ACLs, and everyone had to deal with 10 games of that. Of course, even Bortenschlager got banged up three different times just for good measure, leading to transfer walk-on Ryan Brand starting the Michigan game. Maryland won two Big Ten games by a combined 10 points. Their seven losses came by an average of 28. The last one was a 63-point decimation; it’d be a murder if Maryland wasn’t already metaphorically dead.

That’s not what the experts saw coming—although Maryland’s relationship with quarterback ACLs is infamous at this point—but it’s how 4-8 happened.

So what can we even make of all this?

Probably not much. The sample size of a Pigrome- or Hill-led Maryland isn’t even nine quarters, and four of those were against Towson. The offense looked like a juggernaut for most of those nine quarters, and the defense appeared good enough, albeit inconsistent.

It’s clear looking back that Texas wasn’t a top-25 team, but beating the Longhorns in Austin should still be lauded. Texas finished 6-6 with overtime losses to USC and Oklahoma State, a five-point defeat to Oklahoma and a last-minute loss to Texas Tech ... and then there’s Maryland, who had its way with that team. UCF is also 11-0 right now. Maryland led that game when Hill went down. There were still three quarters left, but the run of play looked even.

What we do know for sure is that Maryland without its best two quarterbacks was aggressively not good. The Terps went 2-7 in the Big Ten, with close wins over Minnesota and Indiana, who also finished conference play 2-7. Bortenschlager looked promising at times, but “promising at times” will never cut it against the muscle of Maryland’s schedule. Good defenses stacked the box and forced the third-string quarterback to beat them with longer throws to the wide side of the field. He usually couldn’t, and it also became harder for Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison to show the explosiveness they otherwise could have.

Quarterback injuries don’t directly impact the defense, but they don’t help. Maryland’s offense kept stalling and putting the defense back on the field, and the Terps were generally too undersized to stop the run out of a 4-2-5 scheme. Failing to find a pass rush after losing Jesse Aniebonam in the opener didn’t help, either.

Maryland’s offense was 127th in third-down conversion rate. The defense was 126th. First, second and fourth downs were only so much better.

There were some good things. Wide receiver D.J. Moore caught 80 passes for eight touchdowns and 1,033 yards. That’s 53 percent of the team’s receiving yards, and he did it with four quarterbacks. On defense, Antoine Brooks was somewhat of a breakout star, and Jermaine Carter and Josh Woods had strong senior seasons. But Maryland needed a few more bounces.

What happens now?

The football offseason is long. This one will be even longer than last year’s, as 4-8 teams don’t get to worry about bowl games in December and January.

Right now, the staff has turned its focus to the recruiting trail. There’s an early signing period from December 20-23 for the first time, and Maryland expects to lock down most of a class that’s currently ranked No. 18 on the 247Sports Composite. There’s also nearly two months until the traditional signing day in February, and the Terps can hurl their best pitch at remaining targets, as they only have a few spots unfilled.

A handful of players from this year’s team have decisions to make regarding their football futures. Moore seems most likely to leave for the NFL, and tackle Damian Prince is an interesting prospect as well. It’s also possible one or more of Aniebonam, Johnson, Derwin Gray, JC Jackson or Darnell Savage turns pro, although losing the majority of this group would be a surprise. These decisions should come over the course of the next month or so.

For everyone else, the countdown to 2018’s season opener is on. Spring practice starts in March, and every quarterback should be at full strength by fall camp. Plenty of production will return around them. The talented underclassmen will be a year older.

This season made it easy to forget that Maryland is still headed in the right direction. The results aren’t too far away.