From 11-0 and the Cotton Bowl last season to 7-4 and the Hall of Fame Bowl has been a bittersweet journey for the Maryland football team this year.
It will be remembered both angrily and fondly as the season that should have better, but could have been worse.
Coach Jerry Claiborne said the team played its best game in the opener at Clemson, winning, 21-14, and never improved after that because of the injuries to 26 key people.
Add just 15 points to their season total in key places and the Terps would have been 9-2 and winners of a fourth straight ACC title.
However, subtracting just 11 points in key places would have made the Terps 5-6, which would have been a bona fide disaster.
Claiborne, who rarely speaks out against officials, feels he was robbed of a victory at North Carolina State by three bad calls. Maryland lost, 24-20, and finished tied for third place in the league with State at 4-2. North Carolina won with a 50-1 record, with Clemson second at 4-1-1. Duke was fifth at 2-4, Virginia sixth at 1-5 and Wake Forest failed to win a conference game.
The top four teams are going to bowls for the first time in the 25-year history of the conference. Three went once, in 1974.
Maryland quarterback Larry Dick, who finished the year with 83 completions in 135 attempts for 1,351 yards and five touchdowns with 12 interceptions, called this "a heartbreak season ending on a happy note."
"It's quite an honor, to tell you the truth," Dick said of the Hall of Fame Bowl bid. "Going to five straight bowls puts us in pretty select company. Not many schools have done that.
"Those five bowls have been in the very years I've been here. I'm very proud of that and I'm proud of the guys I play with."
Like everyone else, Dick says a 9-2 season was out of their grasp primarily because there was a breakdown in a different phase of the game in each contest.
Clairborne attributes that trouble to an inability of many players to practice day in and day out, due to injuries to just about everyone. On offense, only center Don Rhodes and linemen Mike Yeates and Larry Stewart started every game. The rest was a juggling act, right down to fourth-string quick tackle Scott Collins, who started the last six games. It was almost as bad on defense.
For most of the year, Maryland led the ACC in one category - passing. But this was also an area that produced several key mistakes. Fifteen interceptions reinforced Claiborne's religious belief in the running game.
Claiborne's team, which loses 12 starters among 21 seniors, will probably run to excess next year for the following reasons:
The Terps lose both of their pro-prospect quarterbacks, Dick and Mark Manges.The new starter will have almost no game experience, and handing off is a much safer route for a newcomer than passing.
The Terps also lose leading receiver Vince Kinney (32 catches, 505 yards) and Chuck White (21 catches, 325 yards).
Six defensive positions will be left vacant compared to four on offense) so Claiborne will want his offense on the field as long as possible, which means a time-consuming ground attack.
Returning will be all the key running backs, including tailback Steve Atkins and George Scott, the find of this or any other year at Maryland. The sophomore rushed for 581 yards in his last three games, including a school record 237 yards against Villanova.
This year, there still is the Hall of Fame Bowl against Minnestota, which is also 7-4. It will be the first time the Terps have played a Big 10 Conference team since 1950, when they beat Michigan State, 34-7.
Hall of Fame committee member Grantland Rice III said Minniesota's appeal was based on its victories over Michigan, Washington and UCLA, which, as Caliborne points out, are the three contenders for the Rose Bowl.
Bowl officials did not try to sugar coat their reasons for choosing Maryland. The Terps beat just one ranked team, Clemson, in the opener, their only truly impressive game. Maryland was picked for reputation, for its past accomplishments (primarily the four straight bowls), for its ability to interest a large metropolitan television audience and, most of all, for its head coach.
Caliborne played at Kentucky for Bear Bryant and later was an assistant to the Alabama coach, who has some influence on the committee for the Birmingham, Ala., bowl game.
Rice admitted the "main thing Maryland has going for it is Claiborne." Chairman Fred Sington said, "Claiborne is home folks."
The committee wanted an intersectional game that would interest as many viewing audiences as possible. It has not yet been determined how many markets will view the game, which begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Dec. 22.
The game will be played on the artificial turf of Legion Field Stadium, which seats 72,000. Depending on ticket sales. Rice says each team will receive between $190.000 and $225,000. (The take from last year's Cotton Bowl was in the $900,000 range).
Net proceeds go to the Hall of Fame Foundation, which awarded Maryland safety Jonathan Claiborne a $1,000 scholarship this year to pursue graduate studies. The only fly in the ointment is that the younger Claiborne is uncertain what he wants to do next year.
"I guess I don't get the scholarship if I don't go to school," quipped Claiborne. "I'd like to take the money and go to Rio."
Jonathan was not without a sense of humor in his five years of playing under his father. And this year, especially, was no laughing matter.