Maryland looks better each Saturday, the college football Top 20 looks more confused each Sunday, and suddenly the enigmatic Terrapins are back in the national scheme of things.
Maryland's 28-10 victory Saturday over North Carolina gave the Terrapins a 6-2 record, and their two losses looked more than respectable, coming as they did to fourth-ranked Michigan and third-ranked Penn State. The Nittany Lions are still unbeaten at 8-0 and will contend with Florida (7-0-1) for the No. 1 ranking after Iowa's 22-13 loss to Ohio State.
When the polls come out today, it will be the fourth time this season a new team has been No. 1. However, there is one big "but" that must be accounted for when discussing Maryland.
Most of the Terrapins' wins have come against Atlantic Coast Conference teams that have been only fair. A far truer test will come at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium next weekend, against 11th-ranked Miami.
"I can't make that assessment," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said. "But I know we can play a heck of a game and still lose. It's not necessarily a this-is-it kind of thing. But, should we win, it could be real positive."
The Hurricanes (7-1) upset 10th-ranked Florida State, 35-27, and will probably improve in the polls. Their only loss came to Florida in the opening game of the season.
Eighteen teams in last week's Associated Press poll had one loss and two teams were ranked despite two losses: No. 20 Southern Methodist and No. 17 Brigham Young.
Florida's only black mark was a 28-28 tie with Rutgers. The Gators, who cannot appear on television or go to a bowl as a result of NCAA probation, beat the Hurricanes, 35-23. Besides Penn State and Florida, the only unbeaten major colleges are No. 7 Air Force (9-0) and unranked Bowling Green (9-0).
In short, the Hurricanes could either undo the Terrapins, or put them back in the poll-bowl race. Their victory over a strong Florida State team was far more impressive than Maryland's halting win over mediocre North Carolina.
The game was a familiar sequence of lapses for the Terrapins: three interceptions for quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, and two wasted first-half scoring opportunities. The Terrapins still led, 14-0, at the half, but then North Carolina scored 10 points in the third quarter, helped by Gelbaugh's interception.
Not until the second play of the fourth quarter did the Terrapins put the game out of reach, Rick Badanjek scoring his second touchdown on a two-yard run to end an 87-yard drive and his third touchdown with 3:43 left. Even with Ross' assessment that the Terrapins generally played well Saturday, one thing seems clear: they can't afford inconsistency against Miami.
"We don't want to let them get a cheap touchdown and we don't want to turn the ball over," Ross said. "We've got to make them earn everything and hopefully be consistent . . . One thing for sure, we don't want three interceptions. That could make things difficult. We don't want that at all."
Virginia's 27-7 win over West Virginia was encouraging for a team that has been curiously inconsistent. The Cavaliers go back to conference play this week at North Carolina State. While Maryland is still the only unbeaten team in the conference, Virginia is 3-1, Georgia Tech and Clemson both 4-1.
But if the Cavaliers (5-3 overall) are to have any hopes of wrestling the ACC title from Maryland, they will have to find a cure for their habit of slumping in the second half. Saturday Virginia took a 21-0 lead at the half before settling into a passive state, tailback Barry Word fumbling on the six to abort one drive and fullback Kevin Morgan losing the ball on the one to stop another.
"I hope this game is going to give us some momentum," Coach George Welsh said. "We'd been talking this week about being a good November football team. This is the point now where you make or lose a season."
Fumbles were the surprising new source of Navy's ongoing troubles. The Midshipmen had six in their 41-17 loss to Notre Dame, losing four. The most shocking statistic, however, was that three came from Heisman Trophy candidate Napoleon McCallum, setting up three second-half touchdowns for the Irish.
Navy (3-5) had just two fumbles in its seven previous games, and McCallum had not fumbled at all.
The Midshipmen otherwise moved the ball well, gaining 355 yards and playing to a standoff in time of possession, controlling the ball for 29:40 to 30:20 for Notre Dame.