By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 8:20 PM
One bowl game after another passed on Maryland and its feel-good turnaround narrative, causing the Terrapins to free fall in Sunday's bowl selection process until they were embraced by the only game that truly wanted them: the Military Bowl.
A matchup between Maryland and East Carolina (6-6) at RFK Stadium on Dec. 29 is a coup for the third-year bowl looking to maximize local appeal. But it looms as a disappointment for Maryland players - and fans alike - who were hoping for a warm-weather locale and a high-profile opponent to punctuate a season in which the Terrapins (8-4, 5-3 ACC) posted the nation's second-biggest turnaround.
In a teleconference, Coach Ralph Friedgen, who had felt his team was deserving of an upper-tier bowl, praised the Military Bowl but said the situation "is what it is. We have to make the best of it. The toughest thing is that it's in our own backyard."
Kevin Anderson, Maryland's first-year athletic director, said he was "disappointed" with the process and how bowl berths were determined. Anderson said he did not know why Maryland slid to the eighth slot. He added that Maryland officials have spoken to the ACC office and Anderson wants to talk to conference officials further about the process at future league meetings.
Despite finishing in a three-way tie for third in the ACC - with North Carolina State (8-4, 5-3) and Miami (7-5, 5-3) - Maryland dropped to eighth in the ACC bowl pecking order. This was an indictment of Maryland's diminished fan base, which filled Byrd Stadium to 75 percent capacity only once this season.
A significant factor in the bowl selection process is the expectation that a team's fan base will travel well. Other bowl games were able to select other teams because of a rule that allows a team to be picked as long as it is not more than one conference game behind another available team.
As a result, four teams with worse overall records than Maryland - Miami, Clemson (6-6), North Carolina (7-5) and Georgia Tech (6-6) - were selected ahead of the Terrapins. And N.C. State, which Maryland beat, 38-31, in the regular season finale, was picked ahead of the Terps as well.
At the top of the ACC's pecking order is Virginia Tech, which earned a berth in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 with a victory over Florida State in the ACC championship on Saturday. The Hokies (11-2) are expected to play Stanford (11-1).
Maryland's long-shot hopes of playing in an upper-tier bowl dissolved late Saturday night in - of all places - Tampa, where Connecticut earned the Big East title with a last-minute victory over South Florida. That cleared the way for the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., to select West Virginia (9-3), thus blocking Maryland's slim chances of landing there because bowls try to avoid regular season rematches. The Sun Bowl, which had the next selection, was delighted to match up two of the nation's most recognizable football programs, Notre Dame and Miami.
The Military Bowl is the best option for Maryland strictly from a financial standpoint. The school stood to lose money on every other bowl game possibility. And after falling more than $500,000 short of season ticket sales projections in each of the past two seasons, Maryland now can avoid spending money on one or two charter flights for the bowl game. Players will still stay in a team hotel, perhaps for as long as seven nights.
Executives from multiple bowls had expressed private concerns about Maryland's fan base traveling well after a season fraught with attendance issues. While Maryland struggled to fill Byrd Stadium, N.C. State, on the other hand, filled its stadium to at least 97 percent capacity for every game this season.
But Anderson said bowl officials had told him how well they thought Maryland fans had traveled to previous bowl games. Anderson added, "We take everyone at their word." Anderson said in the future he would have a better indication of what it takes to earn a berth in a game higher in the pecking order.
Maryland officials have another challenge: Getting fans fired up for a weekday game 10 miles from campus against a Conference USA team. The game will be televised live on ESPN at 2:30 p.m. There is some concern that Maryland won't meet the 10,000 ticket allotment requirement because fans may feel playing in the Military Bowl is a letdown.
Some Maryland players, including defensive lineman Drew Gloster, had said they felt Maryland would avoid playing in the Military Bowl because of the N.C. State victory. As it turned out, according to bowl executives and officials throughout the ACC, that outcome proved irrelevant to Maryland's bowl fate.
"Evidently that win wasn't good enough," Anderson said. "Next time we will have to win more games to play in the [ACC] championship," where teams are protected from falling lower than the fourth pick.
Terrapins note: James Franklin, Maryland's offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting, has emerged as a candidate for Vanderbilt's head coaching opening, a source close to Franklin said.