Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Maryland football: Soon to be swimming with the big fish in the Big Ten

Maryland Coach Randy Edsall speaks to the media at a news conference during the Atlantic Coast Conference football media day in Greensboro, N.C.

Maryland football Coach Randy Edsall preferred to keep the focus on the present at the Terps’ media day Monday. Responding to a question about next season, Edsall reminded reporters that Maryland still is in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and “we’re not focused on anything other than trying to prepare ourselves” for this season.

With a finally healthy roster that includes wide receiver Stefon Diggs, one of the country’s most dynamic playmakers, Edsall has reason to dwell on the moment. And with Maryland’s move to the Big Ten a year away, the athletic department can proceed with relative confidence about its financial future.

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But a freight train is speeding toward College Park, and Edsall’s reluctance to look down the tracks won’t stop its arrival. The flip side to the economic benefits of Maryland’s move after 60 years in the ACC is a cold competitive reality: The Terps’ best shot at a conference championship may be this fall, because they may never win one in their new league.

When Maryland joins the Big Ten for the start of the 2014-15 school year, it will be in a division with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State — three of the schools with the richest pedigrees in the game. The winners of the conference’s two divisions play for the title in the Big Ten championship game. Understand the Terrapins’ problem now?

In any given year, one of those perennial powers may struggle — currently, Penn State is coping with harsh NCAA sanctions. Perhaps even two of the elite programs would be down simultaneously. It’s unlikely all three would flop at once.

Surprises do occur. Sometimes teams that are picked to finish in the middle of the pack in preseason polls wind up in first place. However, the Terrapins appear to be facing a future of striving for fourth- or lower-place finishes in the East Division, which also will include Michigan State, Indiana and Rutgers.

In college football more than any sport, the winningest schools have the deepest pockets. It shows in the quality of a school’s athletic facilities. The Terrapins’ facilities will be — by far — the worst in their division.

For Maryland, the trouble begins with Byrd Stadium. The school says its capacity is 54,000, making it among the division’s smallest. The stadiums at Penn State and Michigan accommodate more than 107,000. At Ohio State, capacity is around 102,000.

Beginning next season, three of Maryland’s division rivals will have the potential, based on the size of their stadiums, to more than double the school’s game-day revenue from ticket, parking, food and souvenir sales. Profits can be funneled back into the football program to upgrade facilities and increase salaries to lure the best coaches. You don’t need to be a numbers whiz to realize the math adds up poorly for the Terrapins.

The support Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State receive from their huge fan bases is another hurdle for Maryland. If all the current Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State season-ticket holders canceled their tickets, there would be a long list of people eager to buy them — and keep the cash registers turned on.

Maryland doesn’t have the money to add 50,000 seats or more to Byrd Stadium. And even if the financing were available, it would be foolish for the school to invest in a major expansion project. There isn’t enough interest in the Terrapins’ product.

As much as Byrd Stadium will put the Terrapins at an economic disadvantage, their sub-standard training facilities figure to hurt more in terms of preparation. Maryland will be the only member of the Big Ten without an indoor practice facility.

Coaches believe you play as well as you practice. No matter the weather in Ann Arbor, Columbus or State College, practice goes on as usual. Not so in College Park. For safety reasons, the Terrapins can’t work outdoors in extreme weather conditions. Although coaches would rather not cut short practice time and alter well-planned schedules, they have no choice when the weather could jeopardize the health of players.

Recruiting players is easier for Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Beyond the intangible benefits of having rich traditions to sell, coaches of longtime top-25 programs have more practical advantages in the use of private planes, allowing them to make more recruiting stops (per NCAA rules, of course) free from the shackles of commercial flight schedules.

Edsall is faring well in recruiting despite having to do it the old-fashioned way. But consider this: Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer doesn’t have to worry about getting stuck in the ‘C’ boarding group on Southwest.

The good news for Maryland is that Edsall is doing all he can to overcome the university’s brick-and-mortar issues.

Talk to high school coaches, and they’ll tell you Edsall has done a great job in persuading some of the top players in Maryland and the District to sign with the Terrapins. Edsall and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson actually care about educating players. They want to build an honorable program that’s also successful.

If Maryland had stayed in the ACC, and Edsall’s long-term plan worked, you could envision a time in the not-too-distant future in which the football team would win a conference title, which hasn’t happened since the ACC went to division play in 2005. But as long as Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State are blocking Maryland’s path in the Big Ten, it’s hard to imagine Maryland climbing high.

The Terrapins must make the most of their final season in the ACC and enter the Big Ten with some momentum. After this season, they may not generate much for a long, long time.

For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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