Maryland's football team has found out just how relative success can be.

Stan Gelbaugh, the senior quarterback, probably best summed up the Terrapins' season when he said, "Last year, we were 9-3 and on top of the world. This year, with the same record, everybody was trying to shuffle us to the back of the shelf."

The Terrapins, after Saturday's 35-18 Cherry Bowl victory over Syracuse, don't feel they are a back-of-the-shelf team.

Maryland did finish 9-3 for the second straight year, which few teams in the nation can claim. And when the final polls are in on the morning of Jan. 2, the Terrapins -- who entered the game ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll and unranked in the United Press International poll -- probably will find themselves somewhere between No. 15 and No. 20.

Still, that is several spots below where many people, in the preseason, predicted Maryland would finish. That is why a season that included a third straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship and fourth straight bowl appearance might be remembered as a relative success.

"I think the state of Maryland football is very good," Coach Bobby Ross said today. "I think we're a top-20 team. I don't pay very much attention to the polls; if we don't get in I'm not going to lose sleep. But it's important for me to know we're in that category and I think we are."

Maryland certainly looked like a top-20 team in beating Syracuse. But the problem with Maryland's nine victories is that none came against a team ranked in the top 20.

But the Terrapins finished the season believing they are now about even with the top five teams.

"We lost to Penn State, Miami and Michigan (all ranked in the top five), but we played with those teams," Ross said. "Michigan did beat us decisively. But against Penn State (a 20-18 loss) and Miami (29-22) we had real good chances of winning."

Maryland defensive tackle Scott Tye, one of Saturday's heroes with a fumble-recovery touchdown, shook his head and said, "We were nine points away from a 10-1 record and a major bowl."

Although the Terrapins seemed fairly happy about their season, none interviewed suggested Maryland should be satisfied with a spot in the lower half of the top 20 and a minor bowl bid.

"There's a big difference between 8-4 and 9-3," said linebacker Scott Schankweiler. "We went 8-4 the first two years (under Ross) and now we've gone 9-3 twice. The program has to take another step up."

Whether Maryland can make that step next season is questionable.

The school has tried to accomplish that goal by attempting to sign Ross. (The contract still has not been signed, however).

"Maryland would have made a very big mistake if they'd let him go," Gelbaugh said. "It would have ruined the program for a while."

Ross, from all indications, will sign the four-year contract soon. But coming up with offensive linemen and a quarterback may prove more difficult than getting Ross signed.

Fortunately for Maryland, 17 of the top 22 defensive players return, including guard Bruce Mesner, cornerback Al Covington and linebacker Chuck Faucette.

The offense loses three starting linemen, including all-America tackle J.D. Maarleveld, Len Lynch and Tony Edwards. Gelbaugh and running back Rick Badanjek also will not be back. But Ross will have the rest of his top offensive players returning next season, including running backs Alvin Blount and Tommy Neal, tight end Ferrell Edmunds, and wide receivers Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof and James Milling.

Gelbaugh was booed at home several times this year, but those same people might find they'd love to have him back next year since none of the quarterbacks on next year's roster will have had any game experience.

"We've got to rebuild in the offensive line, and we've got to go out and find a quarterback," Ross said. "But I think the talent base is there."

Mesner raised a good point when he said, "The expectations won't be as high next season. I think that could be a blessing. We've got a big part of the defense coming back, and the offense will be pretty good. I think we can use this bowl game as a kickoff for next season."