One year ago, Maryland football upset No. 23 Texas in Austin to open the 2017 season. It was an absurd game featuring 92 points, four non-offensive touchdowns and a 20-point lead trimmed to three before the Terps pulled away. It was Maryland’s first win over a ranked opponent in seven years, and DJ Durkin’s program had seemingly announced itself as a rising power.
Since then, well ...... it hasn’t been great.
Quarterback injuries, a worn-down defense and the nation’s toughest schedule were collectively too much to handle, and the Terps limped to a 4-8 record. They lost their last four games, including a 66-3 home annihalation by Penn State. Maryland shuffled nearly half its coaching staff in the offseason, and while a lot of production returned and a top-30 recruiting class came in, there was still reason for uncertainty.
Then there was the tragic, chaotic summer that brought the program squarely into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In case you missed any of it...
- Offensive tackle Jordan McNair collapsed during a team workout May 29 and died June 13. He was 19.
- Maryland launched an external investigation into the program’s health and safety procedures.
- Less than two weeks after McNair’s death, interim athletic director Damon Evans was given the long-term job.
- Details surrounding McNair’s death trickled out during the summer, but ESPN’s reporting of the workout and of a “toxic culture” in the program made the Terps a national story.
- DJ Durkin was placed on leave and Matt Canada (who had just been hired as offensive coordinator in January) was named interim head coach.
- University president Wallace Loh announced a new investigation into the culture of the football program the following week. That’s now an eight-person panel.
- The Board of Regents is now overseeing both investigations. It met Thursday but we don’t know what’s come of that yet.
The heartbreak and the anger and the questions still linger. But the Terps will try to put everything else aside for a few hours Saturday afternoon as the Longhorns come to FedEx Field for the rematch. Texas is again ranked No. 23, but the spread is five points closer than it was at this time last year.
Saturday’s game kicks off at noon ET on FS1.
No. 23 Texas Longhorns
2017 record: 7-6, 5-4 Big 12
Head coach Tom Herman is entering his second season with the Longhorns. He came to Austin after two successful years at Houston, where he guided the Cougars to records of 13-1 and 9-3. Herman was one of the most coveted coaches in the 2016-17 offseason, but chose to return to Texas, where he was a grad assistant from 1999-2000. The loss to Maryland brought some early doubters, but he seems to have cultivated optimism entering this season. He’s also been in the news lately for going to a strip club that one time in 2014.
Players to know
Sam Ehlinger, sophomore, QB, 6’3/230, No. 11. Ehlinger appeared in nine games as a true freshman, making six starts. He completed 57.5 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but his running is what set him apart from Shane Buechele, last year’s Week 1 starter. Ehlinger led Texas with 385 rushing yards on 114 attempts (with sacks counting against these numbers).
Collin Johnson, junior, WR, 6’6/215, No. 9. Johnson was the Longhorns’ top receiver in 2017, tallying 54 receptions, 765 yards and two touchdowns. One of those scores came against Maryland; he had 125 yards on seven catches in that game.
Kris Boyd, senior, CB, 6’0/195, No. 2. Texas lost its two most productive defenders last season in linebacker Malik Jefferson and safety DeShon Elliott, so Boyd will have to step in as a veteran leader. He enters the year with 20 career starts, the most on the defense. Boyd recorded 54 total tackles and two interceptions last season, and he also led the team with seven kicks returned (although he’s not listed as a kick returning option on the current depth chart).
Defense. The Longhorns had the nation’s No. 21 defense by S&P+ last season and ranked 30th in points allowed per game despite playing high-octane Big 12 offenses (and surrendering 51 to Maryland). Texas lost five of last year’s defensive starters, but it’s still an experienced group. Ten of this week’s 11 first-stringers have at least seven career starts under their belts.
Rushing. Texas ranked 96th in rushing yards per game, 110th in yards per carry and 85th in rushing S&P+. Going running back by committee led to Ehlinger pacing the team in attempts and yards as a true freshman quarterback. New starter Tre Watson (yep, a different one) transferred in after his senior season at California was cut short by injury, so it’s hard to say how much he can fix the issue by himself.
Three things to watch
1. How does Maryland come out after everything that’s happened? It’s just about impossible to predict this. Offseasons like this can galvanize teams, tear them apart or anything in between. The Terps’ energy on the field and on the sideline will be worth watching all afternoon.
2. Who wins the battle of grad transfers named Tre Watson? The Longhorns added a running back from Cal; the Terps picked up a linebacker from Illinois. Both have been named starters at their respective positions. Expect the two to converge in space a handful of times; how those encounters go could have a real impact.
3. What happens on special teams? Last year’s contest featured two blocked field goals returned for touchdowns, a 91-yard punt return touchdown and two more missed field goals. It was absurd. This time around, both teams have true freshman kickers and Texas is replacing superstar punter Michael Dickson. Pretty much every possibility is on the table right now.
Vegas: Texas -14 (O/U 53)
S&P+: Texas 31, Maryland 22
Me: Texas 28, Maryland 24