This is the time of year when bowls look at schools and schools look at bowls, and Maryland and the Cherry Bowl apparently are gazing at each other with affection. There are lots of details to wrap up first, however, beginning at Clemson on Saturday afternoon.
The last two meetings between these teams were lopsided, but that is no reason to expect something similar today at Clemson Memorial Stadium (2:42 p.m.). Maryland (6-3, 4-0) remains in solid position to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, but Clemson (5-4, 4-2), now out of contention, is behaving like a spoiler.
A victory today would assure the Terrapins of at least a tie for the ACC title and would further impress bowl scouts, chief among them those for the Cherry Bowl, who have seen the Terrapins twice this season and who have two more of their games on tape. According to Mike Mills, Cherry Bowl director of communications, Maryland would be delighted to attend the bowl on Dec. 21 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
"They've been more than receptive to us," Mills said. "At this point, I'd say they'd accept an invitation from us."
Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull praised the Cherry Bowl for its attendance and financial success. But he added, "I think that's a little premature. We are very, very interested, but we still have to win." Representatives from the Peach, Independence and All-American bowls also are expected to attend Saturday's game.
If Maryland beats Clemson today and Virginia in its season finale, it may be hoping for something with a bit more prestige than the Cherry Bowl. Mills would not say how close the Cherry is to extending an offer, but he did say that 12 teams remain possibilities, including Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Brigham Young, Air Force, Georgia, Florida State, Auburn and Tennessee.
Clemson was knocked out of the ACC race with last week's 21-20 loss to North Carolina, which broke a four-game winning streak. It has last year's embarrassment in Baltimore, a 41-23 loss to Maryland, to provide incentive, but Maryland is certainly the favorite, with the conference title within its reach.
"There are a bunch of things riding on this," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said. "If we continue to win, no one can do anything about us. That's the focal point for us."
Clemson's primary worry is Maryland's defense against the rush, which has allowed only two touchdowns on the ground all season. That does not bode well for the Tigers, who are primarily a running team, with an inexperienced freshman quarterback, Rodney Williams, running the option-oriented offense.
They have averaged 278.8 yards rushing over the last five games with an option-oriented attack, and Coach Danny Ford doesn't intend to stop them now, especially with inexperience at quarterback. Fullback Kenny Flowers has rushed for 796 yards and 10 touchdowns, tied with Rick Badanjek for the ACC lead in scores. Although Badanjek has a badly bruised toe and did not practice until today, he is expected to start Saturday.
Clemson will not have a senior on the field on defense, another drawback against the Maryland offense, which leads the league in scoring (24.9 points) and total offense (397.4 yards). But Maryland's last appearance in Clemson Memorial Stadium was the occasion of a 52-27 loss.
If Clemson pulls off an upset, Maryland's meeting with Virginia next week could cause some conference confusion. But the Cavaliers (5-4, 3-2) first must worry about North Carolina (5-4, 3-2) today at Scott Stadium (1 p.m.).
The Cavaliers should be favored over the Tar Heels, but their four losses came against teams they were supposed to beat, including North Carolina State last week. They have been curiously unemotional and inconsistent from half to half, which they can't afford against a comparable North Carolina team.
"If we're going to win, we have to play at a high emotional level," Coach George Welsh said. "We can't have a bad half and survive this game."
Two teams looking to survive will meet when Navy visits South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium (1:30 p.m.). The Midshipmen (3-6) have lost four games by less than a touchdown. South Carolina (4-5), the No. 2 team in the nation at this time last year before it was upset by Navy, is simply trying to avoid a losing season after a 56-14 rout by Florida State last week.
The Gamecocks would seem to have the advantage over Navy, which has been plagued by injuries all year and which suffered a devastating blow after last week's 24-20 loss to Syracuse, when quarterback Bill Byrne underwent emergency surgery for a torn spleen. Reserve Bob Misch was the quarterback who led Navy to last year's 38-21 upset of the Gamecocks, but he underwent knee surgery in the offseason and has limited mobility.
"None of that (last year's game) means anything when the whistle blows," Coach Gary Tranquill said.
The Midshipmen won't change their offense for Misch, a junior who has played sparingly. But they would be forced to make some adjustments if they need to go to third-stringer Joe Lauletta, who is a more mobile, sprint-out type, but with a weaker arm than Misch.
Surprisingly, the hottest team in the area right now might be Howard University, which meets Morgan State at 1:30 p.m. in Baltimore. Howard is 3-6, but has won three of its last four and has a chance to win three straight for the first time since 1982. Morgan State is on an 18-game losing streak and has an offense averaging 8.3 points.