Maryland and Virginia have Atlantic Coast Conference challenges ripe with rich rewards today in the major games in local college football action.
The Terrapins (5-3, 2-3) visit North Carolina State (5-4, 2-4), and a victory guarantees their first winning season since 1995 and makes them eligible for a bowl game. N.C. State needs seven victories to earn a bowl bid because it plays a 12-game season, and teams must have a winning record to play in a bowl game. The Cavaliers (4-4, 3-3) host No. 7-ranked Georgia Tech and a victory would bring the immense satisfaction of knocking off a highly ranked opponent, another step toward a bowl bid and an enhanced chance of continuing a streak of 12 consecutive seasons with at least seven wins.
In other games involving area teams, No. 3 Virginia Tech wants not only a Big East Conference victory at West Virginia but also a performance worthy of at least maintaining its position in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, Howard hosts Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rival South Carolina State and Navy tries to rebound at winless Rutgers after last week's heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame.
Maryland Coach Ron Vanderlinden has been pleased with the way the Terrapins practiced this week after losing a chance to ensure a winning season and bowl eligibility against lightly regarded Duke at home. He also said quarterback Calvin McCall, who played poorly against the Blue Devils, has been throwing better.
Vanderlinden's major concerns are how well McCall, a redshirt freshman, reacts to N.C. State's changing defenses and whether Maryland's defense can contain senior quarterback Jamie Barnette.
"They play more defensive fronts than probably any team in the country," he said. "Lots and lots and lots of variations. It's the wildest stuff you've ever seen. So many [blitz possibilities] makes it even more challenging."
In prior games, McCall has done well in getting the offense in proper position at the line of scrimmage against defenses changing at the last moment. The problem against Duke was missing open receivers.
"Calvin's a very good passer," said wide receiver Guilian Gary, "especially on the run. I feel he doesn't get enough opportunities [he was 7 for 18 against Duke]. But they know what makes us go."
That's a running game, led by tailback LaMont Jordan, that is ranked second to Georgia Tech in the ACC and 13th in the country.
The Terrapins will be without wide receiver Jason Hatala, who suffered a broken pinkie finger on his right hand during practice Tuesday. There are two near-certain lineup changes: Tony Okanlawon ahead of Renard Cox at right cornerback and Charles Hill in place of Kris Jenkins on the defensive line.
How well the Terrapins rush Barnette likely will determine his effectiveness. He has completed 50 percent of his 220 passes for 1,517 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also has been intercepted eight times.
Virginia has a daunting task in trying to avoid losing four straight home games for the first time since 1980, especially with quarterback Dan Ellis unable to start after suffering a concussion last week against top-ranked Florida State. Junior David Rivers, who was 4 of 11 passing for 32 yards against the Seminoles, gets the start.
"I've always appreciated" Rivers, Coach George Welsh said. "It's just too bad we didn't get him some work."
Rivers's inexperience adds to the burden of running back Thomas Jones, who leads the nation in rushing with an average of 159.1 yards.
The other worry for Welsh also involves a quarterback, Georgia Tech's Joe Hamilton, who began the season as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy and remains so.
"I guess the conventional wisdom is make him pitch it and hit him," Welsh said. "But they've had big plays when he pitches it too."
Virginia will be without safety Jerton Evans (knee), and left tackle Josh Lawson may miss the game with a sprained ankle that kept him sidelined against Florida State.
Virginia Tech had nine sacks against Pittsburgh's David Priestley last week. West Virginia senior quarterback Marc Bulger is healthy again after suffering a fractured finger, but he will be throwing to receivers either playing in pain or in the game for starters too ailing to play. However, he threw for 346 yards last week in a loss to Miami.
Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick, who has passed for 973 yards and rushed for 274 as a redshirt freshman, is excited about his first trip to Mountaineer Country.
"Everybody's been telling me about what a hostile environment Morgantown is," Vick said, "but I'm looking forward to it. That's what college football is all about."
For Howard, starting quarterback Bobby Townsend will play after suffering a lacerated forehead, concussion and bruised nose during a victory last week over Norfolk State.
Navy (2-6) has lost five games by six or fewer points. Last week, Notre Dame scored in the final minute for a 28-24 victory. Navy sophomore quarterback Brian Madden was impressive against the Fighting Irish in his first game since replacing the injured Brian Broadwater. Rutgers (0-8) has allowed an average of 53 points in its past four games.
Staff writer Angie Watts and special correspondents Steve Argeris, Jeff Seidel and Rich Scherr contributed to this report.