A BIG Look at Where Terps Football Stands in the Big 10 East Division
So where DO the Terps’ stand in the Big 10 East Division?
It seems like a long time ago, but in Maryland’s initial Big 10 season, 2014, they finished third in that division, ahead of both Penn State and Michigan, with a 4-4 conference record (7-6 overall). The Terps also posted the decade’s signature win (so far), a 20-19 victory at Penn State, their first win ever at State College on their 23rd try going back to 1917.
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Maryland’s second Big Ten season didn’t go quite so well. The Terps fell to 1-7 in the conference, 3-9 overall. The only conference win came in the season finale at Maryland, when the Terps came back from a 31-10 deficit to beat Rutgers 46-41 and move into a tie for last in the division.
Randy Edsall didn’t make it to that game, having been relieved of his duties following a three-game losing streak to West Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio State by the combined score of 122-34. Mike Locksley took over and led Maryland to the traditional near-miss loss to Penn State, and some other close losses before posting his one and only victory as the Terrapin head coach in the Rutgers game. He’s landed on his feet, now the co-offensive coordinator at Alabama, a fair-to-middling little program down south. Edsall, after a year working for the Detroit Lions, went back to Connecticut to try and resuscitate that program.
Those changes ushered in the D. J. Durkin era, which has started off with two top-25 national recruiting classes, probably the first time Maryland has ever accomplished that. That’s half the battle. When Ralph Friedgen took over from Ron Vanderlinden in 2000, he showed that he was a terrific coach with good players, whereas Vanderlinden has brought them in, but never coached them into a winning team. Once Vanderlinden’s players had moved through the program, however, Friedgen showed he had trouble keeping the talent cupboard stocked, and the program slipped back into mediocrity after the stellar 2000-02 seasons when Maryland had a combined record of 31-8, arguably the best three-year stretch Terrapin football has had since the early 1950’s. Maryland has not cracked the top 20 since, and Friedgen was clumsily fired after a 9-4 season to begin the Randy Esdall era.
Anyway, back to D. J. Durkin. Maryland won his first four games, including a 50-7 pasting of conference opponent Purdue. Then…the beatings commenced. There were two more conference wins at home against Michigan State and Rutgers (God bless ‘em) but the six conference losses were by a combined 250-37! My goodness, that’s horrible, but not as bad as Rutgers (seeing a trend here), who lost to Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State by a combined 224-0. Wow. If they relegated teams like European soccer does, Rutgers would probably be in the MAC this year.
So, how should we measure Maryland success in football? Surely there’s more to life than being better than Rutgers (no disrespect to the Scarlet Knights, but 224-0?). For the foreseeable future, it’s hard to see them finishing higher than fourth in that brutally tough division. I know they finished third in 2014, but that’s when both Penn State (post-scandal probation) and Michigan (Brady Hoke) were down. I just can’t imagine a scenario, as much as I’d like to, where Maryland can finish ahead of both of those schools in the same season. Then there’s Ohio State, who probably has, in Urban Meyer, the best coach in the country not named Nick Saban. Michigan State is only one year removed from a stretch of three-straight top-six national rankings, although their bounce back is being slowed by continuing off-the-field issues.
Those four schools are clearly the best programs in the division. In a good year, Maryland can probably finish ahead of one of them, but more than that would be truly special. Before I have any notion that the Terps can finish in the top-3 of the Big 10 East Division, I have to see them be able to compete with Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. I think hoping for Maryland to beat any one of those schools, all three ranked in most preseason top-tens nationally, is simply unrealistic. They do, however, need to not lose by an average of 46 points per game, as they did last year. Cutting that average in half would be a reasonable expectation and demonstrate clear progress this season.
Plugging in those three losses and probably one at Texas in the opener, gives Maryland precious little wiggle room in getting to six wins and bowl eligibility this year. The games against the West division don’t offer any breaks; at Wisconsin, at Minnesota, home against Northwestern. More than one win in those three games would be surprising. That means the Terps would likely have to run the table against Towson, Central Florida, Indiana, and Rutgers (God bless ‘em). Not likely, but certainly doable.
So back to my initial question-where does Maryland fit in the Big 10 East? Thanks to some excellent recruiting by Coach Durkin, I’d say squarely in the middle, if not this year, then next year. Upside? A good year and a more favorable slate of West division opponents could lead to an 8-4, perhaps even 9-3 season, but I suspect that’s the ceiling. Ten wins? Other than the 2000-02 stretch I mentioned earlier, Maryland has only broken thru that barrier one time, in 1976 when they went to the Cotton Bowl with an 11-0 record, mopping up a weak ACC and a weaker out-of-conference schedule.
As a fan, can you live with a string of 8-4 seasons with an occasional 7-5 or 9-3 thrown in? That would resemble most of Jerry Claiborne’s run in the 1970’s and Bobby Ross’ in the early 1980’s. I have fond memories of those years, and new memories like those are within reach. I hope D. J. Durkin is the man to do it. Until the fans are ready to come out and support football with the passion that over 100,000 fans do on Saturdays in Columbus, Ann Arbor, or State College-and I have never thought this area was prepared to do that-then we need to be used to looking up at those teams in the standings.
Take solace in the fact that there are many other sports played during a school year, and Maryland is really, really good in a lot of them. Let me be clear, losing football games 59-3 or 62-3 is not acceptable. The Terps aren’t likely to win the Big 10 anytime soon, but they should be competitive. I’m hopeful they are on that path.
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Next week, more about the other schools in the Big 10 East Division. Until then, live large and have a BIG week everyone.