College sports are cyclical. Unless a school perennially restocks its cupboards with elite talent from the recruiting trail year after year, it will have up years and down years, good seasons and bad. After Maryland graduated nearly its entire defensive front, its starting quarterback and its top five receivers from 2014, it was probable this season would be a dark one for the program. Not "Fire Your Coach After Six Games" bad, per se, but 6-6 was always an absolute peak.
Yet, Maryland's season has been a Hindenburg beyond what most of us expected. The Terps are 2-7 after Saturday's loss to Wisconsin, leaving them to play a full 25 percent of the season with virtually nothing at stake. They are not a good team, and their record has confirmed it.
Come the summer, Maryland will have a new head football coach. It could be Mike Locksley, the current interim, but his 0-3 record at Maryland and 2-29 career mark will probably have athletic director Kevin Anderson looking elsewhere.
This could go a million different ways. But in 2016, it's probably going to go relatively well no matter who's in charge.
Make no mistake: Maryland will still be, at best, the fourth-best team in the Big Ten East, and even that depends on Penn State regressing badly without Christian Hackenberg and a couple of defensive standouts. But the Terps are well in line to win seven or eight games next season if they can only avoid a Bowling Green redux out of conference. This is why:
The Terps should bring back most of a defensive front that's been really good.
The team being terrible has sort of obscured this, but Maryland's transition to a 4-3 defense this year has gone as well as anyone could've expected. The Terps' average yards-per-carry allowed has fallen from 4.5 to 3.75, their sacks-per-game has jumped from 2.4 to 3.6, and their rush defense S&P+ entered the weekend No. 32 out of 128 FBS teams.
This entire gang will be back in town, with the potential exception of junior defensive end and pass-rushing monster Yannick Ngakoue. If Ngakoue sticks around, Maryland has one of the best lines in the Big Ten. If not, it's still pretty good, with tackle Quinton Jefferson and ends Roman Braglio and Jessie Aniebonam slated to return. These are all good players who have played well. Jefferson and Braglio will be eligible as seniors, Aniebonam as a junior.
Behind them, inside linebacker Jermaine Carter will be back as the defense's anchor. It's not clear who will play outside linebacker, but it's also unlikely Maryland will get less production from those spots than it has this year.
The Terps will lose three starters in the secondary, but not the irreplaceable one.
On the merits, Will Likely has had a really good season. I'm not even accounting for special teams, where he's been dynamite. This is purely defense, where Likely has 10 recorded pass break-ups but somehow not a single interception. That Likely hasn't squeezed more turnovers this year is a dumb stroke of variance, but he's been in some senses a better cover cornerback than he was as a sophomore, when he only had 9 break-ups for the whole year. The interceptions should come back to some degree when he's a senior.
(In general, Maryland should get better turnover luck next year. The Terps have lost 10 points per game on bad fortune with turnovers, which is the worst mark in the country.)
The rest of Maryland's starting secondary will graduate, but it's hard to see, again, how much regression there could be in the defensive backfield. Safeties Anthony Nixon and A.J. Hendy have struggled to keep a lid on Maryland's defense, which has repeatedly taken big-play gashes. Cornerback Sean Davis has immense talent but has not had an easy adjustment to cornerback. Maryland is near the bottom of the Big Ten in every long-passing play category and has allowed 17 completions of more than 30 yards, tied for No. 99 in FBS.
The offensive line got much better this year and isn't getting much worse.
Maryland's line has been solid all year. The Terps are No. 5 in adjusted line yards and No. 3 in rushing S&P+, and their quarterbacks have only been sacked 2.1 times per game, for an adjusted sack rate in the top 50 nationally. Five-star tackle Damian Prince has gotten his feet wet and held his own, and four-star tackle Derwin Gray has gotten his first collegiate game experience, too.
Maryland will lose seniors Evan Mulrooney, Andrew Zeller and Ryan Doyle, but Zeller and Doyle are guards – the most replaceable position in the sport – and Maryland has a bunch of young interior linemen in the pipeline, led by redshirt freshman center Brendan Moore and four-star local product Quarvez Boulware. Maryland's losing 60 percent of its line but should be more than fine, anyway.
Maryland's young receiving corps should return almost completely intact.
Maryland lost 75 percent of its receiving production from last season. It's been a rough go getting over it, with only freshmen D.J. Moore and Avery Edwards really standing out, and even then only in spurts. The nice thing for Maryland? Virtually none of its receivers are out of eligibility, and only blocking tight end P.J. Gallo (who's taking a job with Goldman Sachs with a season of eligibility remaining) won't be around from that position. Four-star receiver Tino Ellis will be around, too.
Whoever plays quarterback will have, to at least some degree, a sharper group of receivers.
Maryland won't have the worst quarterback play in the country two years in a row.
Whether four-star freshman Dwayne Haskins wins the starting job or doesn't, Maryland's quarterbacking has nowhere to go but upward. Caleb Rowe and Perry Hills have both had beyond brutal years, driving Maryland as a team to toss a mind-boggling 25 interceptions against 14 touchdowns, for 5.4 yards per throw and a 90.5 rating that ranks No. 127 nationally. The only team worse is triple-option Georgia Southern, which almost never passes. Maryland has been the most unproductive passing team in the country. This is the bottom.
Either Haskins will unseat both Hills and Rowe immediately (the likeliest option), there will be a transfer quarterback or someone will have improved enough to start as a senior. Either way, this degree of ineptitude is not happening again. It simply can't. Maryland is on its way to one of the worst quarterback passing seasons in modern college football history, with team passer rating that is the worst of any power-conference team since Vanderbilt in 2009.
Maryland quarterbacks can't possibly be this putrid again. Bake that into a maturing roster with a lot of returning young players, avoid sprinkling in an embarrassing nonconference loss, go 4-5 in Big Ten play, and you've suddenly got a 7-5 team that's playing in a bowl game. Do better than that, and the next coach will look like a messiah.
It's an easy recipe, and it requires little immediate help from whoever moves into Randy Edsall's old office.