Maryland and Clemson are similar in what they want and how they plan to achieve it. They were even using the same analogies, cars, to describe transitions in their programs before today's Atlantic Coast Conference game at Byrd Stadium.
Under first-year coach Tommy Bowden, Clemson (2-3, 2-1 ACC) has scrapped as conservative an offense as any in college football for one that frequently features four wide receivers.
"It's like going to sleep with a Pinto in your garage," senior wide receiver Mal Lawyer said, "and waking up and finding a Lexus GS 400."
Maryland (4-1, 1-1) also is well positioned to grab one of the five bowl bids available to ACC teams that win at least six games. Coach Ron Vanderlinden has been pleased not only with the Terrapins' improvement in this third season, from 2-9 to 3-8 to 4-1, but also with the increased responsibility the players have shown.
"At first, it was like a car you have to steer every inch of the way, constantly shifting just to keep it moving," Vanderlinden said. "Last year, we got power steering but it still was manual transmission. This year, we've upgraded the model, to automatic transmission. I don't have to do as much. The players are taking over, because they see what's in front of them."
In other action involving local teams, fourth-ranked Virginia Tech faces one of its stiffest tests of the season, an ESPN-televised game against No. 16 Syracuse in Blacksburg. Virginia will be trying to avoid its first three-game losing streak in 11 years when it visits North Carolina State. Howard is at home against Towson.
This is homecoming for Virginia Tech, an occasion that included an upset loss each of the past two seasons. The Hokies were 4-0 before losing to Miami of Ohio two years ago and were 5-0 last season before a 28-24 loss to Temple.
Validating Virginia Tech's position among the ultra-elite, ESPN will broadcast its "College Gameday" live from Blacksburg for the first time and one of the national championship baubles, the Sears Trophy, which goes to the team ranked No. 1 in the final USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll, will be on display.
"I told [ESPN commentator] Lee Corso when he was down here a couple of weeks ago that I felt really good about our football team until he started picking us to win," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer joked. "That's when I got concerned."
Over the past two games, Virginia Tech redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Vick completed 18 of 21 passes for 470 yards and five touchdowns. He was heavily recruited by Syracuse but opted to stay in-state and out of Donovan McNabb's shadow.
"I wanted to make a name for myself," he said before the season.
Clemson, tied with Georgia Tech for second in the ACC, has dominated Maryland recently. The Tigers have won the past six meetings, allowing Maryland one touchdown and two field goals over that period. But the Terrapins led 9-7 at halftime two years ago before Clemson scored the final 13 points. In its 23-0 victory last season, Clemson led by just 10-0 after three quarters.
Two unit matchups are especially important. The first is a Maryland offensive line that has allowed two sacks all season against a Clemson defense that has an ACC-leading 21. Defensive end Damonte McKenzie said Clemson's defense also is more aggressive under Bowden.
"Good things happen," McKenzie said, "when you create havoc."
The second major matchup will be Clemson's wide receivers going against one of Maryland's season-long strengths, the secondary. Clemson's Rod Gardner leads the ACC in receptions, with 39 for 461 yards and a touchdown. Brian Wofford (29 for 355 yards, two touchdowns) is third and Lawyer (20 for 190 yards and a touchdown) is seventh.
Maryland's pass defense is first in the league, and left cornerback Lewis Sanders has five of its nine interceptions. Sanders also has recovered three fumbles and leads the league in kickoff returns with a 38.1-yard average.
Both quarterbacks--redshirt freshman Calvin McCall of Maryland and sophomore Woodrow Dantzler of Clemson--are versatile. Dantzler made his first start last week since replacing injured Brandon Streeter (broken collarbone) and completed 23 of 41 passes for 284 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-31 loss to North Carolina State.
Virginia almost certainly needs a victory to extend its streak of seven-win seasons to 13. Virginia has a bye after the Wolfpack before meeting No. 1 Florida State and No. 8 Georgia Tech in consecutive weeks.
"We backed ourselves into a corner," quarterback Dan Ellis said. "We still have a chance for a bowl."
Despite 10 interceptions, Virginia's pass defense has been vulnerable all season. Last week's upset loss by Duke was no exception, as quarterback Spencer Romine drove the Blue Devils 70 yards in six plays to score with 84 seconds left in regulation of the 24-17 double-overtime victory.
Howard lost to Florida A&M in three overtimes last week, and probably will be without starting quarterback Bobby Townsend (sprained foot) today against Towson. Townsend did not practice most of the week, and sophomore Roy Anderson likely will make his first career start.
Anderson's speed gave Florida A&M problems. After replacing Townsend in the second half, Anderson rushed for 28 yards on five carries and completed 6 of 16 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Elijah Thurmon has 36 catches for 631 yards and three touchdowns for Howard. But Coach Steve Wilson said he is concerned that none of the other Bison has more than nine receptions.
Staff writer Angie Watts and special correspondents Steve Argeris and Jeff Seidel contributed to this report.