Rarely does a team that wins its bowl game spend the following hours saying, "Wait till next year." But beating Tennessee, 28-27, in the Sun Bowl Saturday had just that effect on the University of Maryland.
The 12th-ranked Terrapins finished the season 9-3, their best record since 1978, and probably will wind up in the top 10 of both wire service polls. Most important, almost the entire team returns next year for what some observers expect to be the school's first challenge for a national championship since the 1976 season.
Dick Dull, Maryland's director of athletics, said this morning, "If I could, I'd kick off (the 1985 season) right now. What this does is prime the pump for next year. We've got a 9-3 record, and we'll go forth ranked in the top 10. We've got the momentum. I think people now realize that we're on the threshold.
"It has happened quicker than I expected," Dull said. "When we hired Bobby Ross (before the 1982 season), I realistically thought it would take us six to eight years to really challenge for the national title. But next year we'll be knocking on the door with a team that can win the national championship."
Dull flew back to College Park today to work on plans for advertising next year's season tickets. He expects every one of six home games -- beginning with the opener against Penn State -- to be sold out.
The reason for all this optimism at Maryland is simple: 15 offensive and 17 defensive players who played regularly are expected to return.
There is no question Maryland will miss seniors Kevin Glover at center, Eric Wilson at linebacker, Frank Reich at quarterback and Joe Kraus and Bobby Gunderman in the secondary. However, with the exception of Glover's backup, their replacements have started or played in crucial situations.
Eric Wilson's replacement will be junior Bobby DePaul, who has played regularly for much of three seasons, or sophomore Richie Petitbon, whose interception preserved the victory at Miami six weeks ago.
Reich will be replaced by Stan Gelbaugh, who completed 59 percent of his passes in six games. Gelbaugh played so well that Reich nearly didn't regain his starting spot after recovering from a shoulder injury.
The top running backs all return. Rick Badanjek, Alvin Blount and Tommy Neal each rushed for more than 600 yards. Coach Ross also will have fullbacks Spencer Scriber and Kevin Walker. Maryland has so many strong, fast backs, it probably could run the wishbone successfully.
At wide receiver, Greg Hill, another senior, will be gone. But Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof, Eric Holder and Sean Sullivan -- all regulars -- return.
Most significantly, six of the top eight offensive linemen and the top eight defensive linemen will be back. Probably the most difficult player to replace will be record-setting kicker Jess Atkinson.
Many underclassmen were unproven when Maryland lost its first two games of the season. But Ross played them anyway and developed depth. He now has the nucleus of a team that can play with anybody in the country.
The victory here -- Maryland's first in a bowl game since 1977 -- was quite a birthday present for Ross, who turned 48 today. After trailing, 21-0, at halftime, the Terrapins scored 22 points in the third quarter, then mounted a 12-play, 43-yard drive to win on Badanjek's one-yard touchdown run with just more than two minutes remaining.
Immediately, observers began speculating on how good Maryland might be next season. Dull recalled today that when Ross was hired (before the 1982 season), "I said that he should be given four seasons before being evaluated."
Ross has finished his third season. It didn't begin in a very promising way, with home losses to Syracuse and Vanderbilt. After the second loss, Ross, obviously depressed, said he wasn't reaching his team. Thereafter, Maryland won nine of 10 games, the only loss being to archrival Penn State. "And we're a better football team than Penn State," Dull said today.
Maryland can make that statement about a lot of college football teams.