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As Maryland moves forward in the Big Ten, teams like Minnesota present important hurdles to clear

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Before challenging the top teams in the conference, the Terps need to take care of business against similar teams.

NCAA Football: Temple at Maryland Art Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this week’s game, both Maryland and its opponent find themselves in a similar predicament.

Maryland and Minnesota claim national championships in the distant past, and in Maryland’s case, have had brief spurts of success since. The Golden Gophers haven’t really been a factor on the national level since winning their seventh national title in 1960, having only one Big Ten title in 1967 and two finishes in the AP Poll Top 25 in the past 50 seasons. Since Bobby Ross left Maryland following the 1986 season, the Terps have won just one ACC title and finished the year in the AP Poll Top 25 four times.

Both programs also tried to turn around their fortunes in recent years by hiring young, up-and-coming coaches. It’s too early to tell whether either team’s plan will work, since P.J. Fleck is only in his second season and Maryland’s program is in a period of uncertainty after Jordan McNair’s death and the allegations of toxic culture surrounding the program.

Like many Big Ten West teams, Maryland and Minnesota are trying to find a way to elevate the ceiling of their programs. The problem for the Terps is that they don’t play in the Big Ten West.

While the Big Ten West only has Wisconsin to worry about as an annually nationally ranked team, the East has four mainstays in Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. Maryland has gone 3-13 against those teams since joining the conference, with two wins coming before the Nittany Lions and Wolverines returned to national prominence. The past three seasons, the Terps have gone 1-11 against those four teams, with all 11 losses by double digits.

With its division currently stacked, Maryland still hasn’t been able to consistently win games against Rutgers and Indiana. The Terps have split games with both teams, which is trouble if Maryland has any hopes of being bowl eligible.

That’s what makes a crossover game like Minnesota so important. Maryland only gets three non-conference games each year, so has to win at least three Big Ten games to reach the magic six wins. With four likely losses already on the schedule for the foreseeable future, the Terps probably need to win at least one crossover game at minimum to be bowl eligible and to move out of the unwanted stepchild role they currently hold among Big Ten fans.

It’s nice to dream about beating Ohio State and Penn State, but if you can’t beat teams with similar level of talent, then that dream will never become a reality. Getting to the upper tier level of the conference requires beating teams closer to the bottom, which is what most of the crossover games represent.

Whoever coaches Maryland going forward needs to keep this in mind. The goal should always be to eventually try to compete with the top teams in the conference, but you can’t do that if you don’t beat teams in the way of that goal.