So here are the Maryland Terrapins, on the cusp of what seemed highly improbable in the final few seconds of a near loss to Temple in the season opener: Beating Duke today at Byrd Stadium clinches a winning record and the six victories necessary to qualify for a bowl bid.
Based on their respective records, the Terrapins (5-2, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) should not have much difficulty on homecoming with a Duke team whose only victory in seven games was over Virginia in double overtime.
Maryland's fifth-year seniors insist, however, they will not allow anyone to slack off against the Blue Devils, who lost to No. 7 Georgia Tech by just seven points and took North Carolina State to overtime last week. Their motivation includes last chances at glory and memories of being bypassed by the bowls when they last won six games, in 1995. The ACC has arrangements with five bowl games, and more than five ACC teams could receive bids, but as Maryland discovered in 1995, the more wins the better.
"We missed out as freshmen because they took North Carolina over us," said left guard Jamie Wu. "We sort of said after last season: `We've got one more shot.' We've seen other seniors come through and say: `We didn't do as much as we could have. We talked about it, but we didn't do it.' We don't want to be like that. We want to make sure we get there."
The area's other teams also have significant games today. No. 3 Virginia Tech tries to move deeper into the national championship race tonight when it visits Big East rival Pittsburgh. The Hokies also will steal a glance at the scoreboard and root for Virginia to beat top-ranked Florida State in their ACC test tonight in Charlottesville.
Navy has at least as tough a challenge, trying to avoid losing to Notre Dame for the 36th straight time. Host Notre Dame's streak against Navy is the nation's longest ever against one opponent, three more victories than Oklahoma had over Kansas State from 1937 through 1968. Also, Howard gets starting quarterback Bobby Townsend back for its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference road game against Norfolk State.
Maryland is almost completely healthy for today's game, with free safety Shawn Forte and defensive end Erwyn Lyght each recovered enough from neck injuries to play. Randall Jones played well in place of Forte last week against North Carolina and almost certainly will start today.
Duke's strengths are place kicker Sims Lenhardt, whose next point will be his 235th and break the school record he shares with Clarkston Hines, and an offense that has wide receivers Scottie Montgomery and Richmond Flowers among the ACC's top seven pass catchers. But the defense has been poor against the run -- and Maryland tailback LaMont Jordan has been running as well as nearly anyone in the country.
Virginia Tech leads the country in scoring (43.1 points per game), scoring defense (8.0) and total defense (192.3-yard average) and ranks first in the Big East in 10 of 12 major team categories. Pittsburgh's passing game is ranked first in the conference.
"Because of what's happened to us in the past," said senior cornerback Anthony Midget, referring to upset losses to Miami (Ohio) two years ago and to Temple last year, "we know we can't overlook any opponent. We're very focused."
Quarterback Michael Vick correctly read the attitude of much of the country, saying, "A lot of people still don't think our team is for real, so we have to come out and show them every week."
This is the first time Virginia has hosted a No. 1-ranked team. The Cavaliers did beat Florida State at home in 1995, but the Seminoles were No. 2 at the time. A victory would allow the Seminoles (8-0, 6-0) to clinch at least a tie for the ACC title. They have won 36 of 40 games when ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
Virginia Coach George Welsh said there will be no special coverages for Florida State's all-American wide receiver, Peter Warrick.
"The only one I think we've done anything for since [Rick Lantz became defensive coordinator in 1991] has been [N.C. State's] Torry Holt," Welsh said. "We're not going to fool them. We have too many [inexperienced players], so why spend a week learning something new. We're just going to line up and play."
Welsh said there will be lineup changes on the kickoff team. And left tackle Josh Lawson (sprained ankle) may give way to either Jared Woodson or Mike Mullins. Defensive lineman Monsanto Pope returns from a knee injury and moves from tackle to end.
Navy has lost four of its past five games and will use sophomore Brian Madden at quarterback in place of Brian Broadwater, who suffered a broken right collarbone in last week's 35-29 loss to Akron.
The encouraging news for the Midshipmen is the return of fullbacks Raheem Lambert and Marlon Terrell from injuries. Notre Dame has won three straight games and has had a week off since beating Southern California.
"We can't afford to turn the ball over offensively," said Navy Coach Charlie Weatherbie. "Defensively, we can't give up the big play."
Howard's Townsend (67 of 171 passing for 1,147 yards and five touchdowns) suffered a sprained foot in the third quarter of the 40-34 loss to Florida A&M three weeks ago. The Bison hoped to have him back last week, but poor field conditions at North Carolina A&T made that impossible. Howard lost, 51-0.
Norfolk State has a number of key players injured. Running back Angelo Todd led the MEAC in rushing last season with 1,363 yards, but has gained just 379 this season.
Staff writer Angie Watts and special correspondents Jeff Seidel, Rich Scherr and Chris Nehls contributed to this report.