By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 1:48 AM
They receive only a smattering of votes in the top 25 rankings. They played their homecoming game in a partially filled stadium before fewer than 40,000 fans. And their head coach begins weekly news conferences looking at a room lined with chairs that are more empty than filled.
For Maryland's football players, it doesn't feel as if they are tied in the loss column for first place in the ACC's Atlantic Division. Most with a vested interest in the program - fans, poll voters, media members - maintain a wait-and-see attitude with the Terrapins because of the glaring hole in the team's resume: the absence of a signature victory.
The Terrapins (6-2, 3-1 ACC) will take the field Saturday as underdogs against a hobbling Miami team likely to play a fourth-string freshman quarterback and young, second-string running backs. But there will be no asterisk if the Terrapins claim a road win over the tradition-rich program.
"That," Coach Ralph Friedgen said, "would be the breakthrough."
LaQuan Williams, a senior wide receiver, said "a lot of people will judge how good we are off this game. Coming off of a big win against Wake Forest, I still think there are a lot of people in the back of their minds saying: 'They are still Maryland. They haven't beaten anyone yet.' "
There is little doubt Maryland is vastly improved from last season's two-win campaign. With an emerging quarterback (Danny O'Brien) who limits mistakes, a playmaking special teams unit and a blitz-crazed, run-stuffing defense, Maryland has evolved into a competent team capable of, at times, dominating inferior teams.
But with just one-third of the regular season remaining, Maryland is unusual in that it remains an unproven commodity this late in the season. Through eight games, the Terrapins have not beaten a heavyweight nor lost to a lightweight. They have beaten just one division I-A team with a winning record, they have not lost to a team with a losing record and they have not played any team with less than three losses.
Their best victory, a season-opening win against a Navy team that last week lost to rebuilding Duke, looks less impressive by the week. Their worst loss, a 31-7 mistake-riddled setback against a 4-4 Clemson team in Death Valley, is no source of embarrassment.
"We're 6-2," said James Franklin, Maryland's offensive coordinator. "I feel great about our situation. There are a lot of teams in the country that would love to be 6-2. I'm not really concerned about what people think about our wins, and the type of wins. We found ways to win games and we're going to continue to do that. All we can do is beat the people on our schedule and continue to improve."
The schedule has become more manageable than what it had appeared to be before the season. Navy (5-3) is not the non-BCS conference powerhouse some expected; West Virginia (5-3) is not the Big East favorite as predicted. And all three of Maryland's ACC victories have come against teams - Duke, Wake Forest and Boston College - that played first-year quarterbacks. Those teams are a combined 2-12 in ACC play.
Granted, this Maryland team became the first in school history to score more than 60 points twice in the same season. The Terrapins did not score 62 points in their last three games combined in 2009. Miami Coach Randy Shannon said this week, "This is a team that has been on a roll."
But many Maryland fans are guarded in their optimism, knowing that the schedule's toughest stretch looms with three opponents with winning records the next four weeks. And some ACC fans look at Maryland with blatant disregard. One Miami fan sarcastically wrote on the Palm Beach Post's Web site that at least Saturday's game is not at Byrd Stadium because it is a tough place to play: "Just ask Morgan State and FIU. Oh yeah, those are some of Maryland's big wins this year."
Maryland's players are aware of the perception that some view their record as hollow. Less than an hour after a 62-14 victory against Wake Forest on Saturday, wide receiver Torrey Smith said that no one is going to give the Terrapins respect until they beat an elite team.
"We know some people doubt us, some don't," quarterback Danny O'Brien said. "We can't worry about that."
Is Maryland the worst six-win team in the country? Not a chance. Thirteen teams, including Maryland, entered this week with six victories. Counting only games against division I-A teams, Maryland has beaten teams with a .359 winning percentage, which is ninth highest among the 13 teams. The best mark belongs to Iowa, whose division I-A victims possess a .581 winning percentage; the worst is Ohio, whose wins have come against division I-A teams with only a .227 winning percentage.
In the three most credible polls - the Associated Press poll (the Terrapins received the 29th-most votes), the coaches' poll (30th) and the Harris Interactive poll (31st) - Maryland is among the teams also receiving votes. But in three of the computer ratings used in the BCS formula, the Terrapins are ranked in the 40s. They are not in the top 50 of the other computer ratings. The Colley Matrix, one of the formulas used in the BCS ratings, ranks Maryland's schedule as the 116th best nationally.
Despite not being a national contender in recent years, the Hurricanes present a chance for an attention-grabbing victory because they are the most nationally renowned program the Terrapins have encountered all season, a team recognizable by a one-letter moniker: "The U."
"This," Williams said, "is our respect game."