The text messages began flying around after nightfall on Sunday, hours after the Maryland football team finished practice. The players had returned to their apartments, clustered together in friend groups, watching the bowl selection process unfold. Linebacker Cole Farrand compared it to Christmas morning, the anticipation growing as more and more spots got filled, like waiting to unwrap the biggest gift beneath the tree.
Center Sal Conaboy called it torture.
“It really was,” he said Tuesday. “Just not knowing and not knowing who we were playing, going out to practice, not having a game plan was different.”
After beating North Carolina State in the season finale, Maryland (7-5) was all but guaranteed a postseason spot, and the expected destination became reality when the Military Bowl extended its invitation on Sunday. But for a week the Terps, like many college football programs similarly speculating about their fates, existed in a strange limbo more comparable to preseason camp.
Without a game plan or an upcoming opponent, practices focused more on fundamentals and technique. Specific preparation didn’t begin until Tuesday afternoon. That’s why Farrand, when asked what he knew about Marshall, replied, “I know they’re the Herd.”
Thundering Herd, to be exact, but specifics mattered little when Coach Randy Edsall informed his players of their Military Bowl invitation. As the congratulatory messages followed, the anguish subsided, even if the Terps knew all along they were bowl-bound regardless of location.
“We were hearing so many different things, no one really knew,” quarterback C.J. Brown said. “We had an idea we’d go to the Military Bowl, just because being close to home, it makes a lot more money for the school for that bowl game, and we were a perfect match. We were just waiting.”
Brown had barely recovered from a broken collarbone in 2010 when Maryland trounced East Carolina in the Military Bowl, then played at RFK Stadium. He didn’t see the field that afternoon, but reflected on the week-long experience, which included tours of downtown Washington and its monuments, dinners at nice nearby restaurants and plenty of video games inside the team hotel.
Maryland hasn’t experienced anything like that since, with Edsall replacing Ralph Friedgen. They went 2-10 in 2011 and 4-8 last season, never truly sniffing a return to the postseason and ending the years on long losing streaks. This season threatened to bring the same, but Maryland ended a three-game slide in the most unlikely fashion by beating Virginia Tech in overtime on the road and finally securing bowl eligibility.
Around that time, national projections had the Terps headed everywhere from Dallas to Detroit to Shreveport, but only the Annapolis-based Military Bowl first pegged them six months ago as a top target. The local angle would appeal to fans who, instead of hastily booking holiday travel, could drive a half-hour east of College Park. For the players, simply sitting here on Tuesday afternoon, talking not about the end of another sub-par year but a season still continuing, was victory enough.
“I truly feel like I would have been happy anywhere,” Conaboy said. “The fact that we’re going to the Military Bowl and playing close to home, that adds to it. It’s not like it’s in College Park. Guys don’t go to Annapolis or D.C. all the time. It’s going to be a different experience no matter what.”