As the Maryland Terrapins prepared to resume practice last night following a three-day layoff, the message coming from their locker room was clear.
Having built considerable momentum with a four-game winning streak, the Terrapins think they are back in the hunt for the ACC championship and a berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
"We have an opportunity," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said, choosing his words carefully. "It's just a matter of what we do with it.
"From here on out, we've just got to take care of business each and every week. I think we can be in it at the end if we can do that."
As the Terrapins (5-2, 1-1 ACC) prepare for Saturday's game at Duke, which has not won a conference game in three years, there is a budding optimism that they have moved into contention. No. 11 Florida State (5-2, 4-0) and No. 12 North Carolina State (8-0, 3-0) are in control, but Maryland is one of two teams with only one loss in conference play, along with Virginia (6-2, 4-1).
Maryland plays four of its final six games on the road. But the Terrapins point to their 48-17 nonconference victory at West Virginia and their 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech this past Thursday, and say those results prove they are not out of the mix.
"We have that confidence and we feel like that win [over Georgia Tech] put us right back in the middle of things," punter Brooks Barnard said. "Of course, we've got to go out week to week and take care of things, but with that win we feel like we're back in the picture in the conference."
Although Maryland is just two games into its conference schedule, the team says it is making significant strides in the right direction. Friedgen has pointed to the improvement of quarterback Scott McBrien, who is making better decisions and has not thrown an interception in 41/2 games. Running backs Josh Allen and Chris Downs have sufficiently filled in for injured Bruce Perry. The defensive unit, led by all-American linebacker E.J. Henderson, has not allowed a point in the first quarter during the winning streak.
"The way our season has worked out right now is where I want to be," Friedgen said.
Beating Georgia Tech "was a big game for our season, as far as our confidence," Friedgen said. "I think we feel we can compete throughout the league. It's just a matter of being able to do it each and every week. Obviously, N.C. State and Florida State hold all the cards. If they win out, whoever wins [their game Nov. 23 in Raleigh, N.C.] is going to win it. If they should stub their toe and we win out, we could be there, and Virginia could also.
"But that's six games down the road. We can't worry about that now. We've got to worry about Duke right now."
After playing at Duke, Maryland plays at struggling North Carolina, which has lost four of five games and will be without starting quarterback Darian Durant (broken thumb) the rest of the season. Then the Terrapins return home to play N.C. State on Nov. 9, a game that could loom large. A victory in that game, coupled with one Florida State loss, might create a three-way tie for the ACC lead. Virginia, which also could figure into the picture, plays N.C. State on Nov. 16 and Maryland on Nov. 23, with both games in Charlottesville.
In order for Maryland or Virginia to secure the conference's automatic berth to a BCS bowl, though, either team probably would need to win the conference title outright. Both seem unlikely to win a tie-breaking situation with Florida State or N.C. State because they are not ranked in the national polls and might have a difficult time moving up.
The ACC also has agreements to send representatives to the Gator Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Tangerine Bowl, the Continental Tire Bowl and the Seattle Bowl.
Friedgen said his team can continue improving and position itself for a major bowl invitation.
"We still can play better than what I thought we did" against Georgia Tech, Friedgen said. "I think it is there for us. We've just got to go out and keep improving."
Terrapins Notes: Downs, who rushed for 212 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Tech, was named ACC offensive back of the week. C.J. Brooks was named ACC offensive lineman of the week. . . .
Redshirt freshman Ricardo Dickerson, who made two tackles against Georgia Tech in his first career start, is listed as the team's starting strong-side linebacker. Junior Leroy Ambush, who did not practice or play last week but was in uniform against Georgia Tech, is available to play this week, Friedgen said. . . . The Nov. 2 game at North Carolina will start at noon and be televised by Comcast SportsNet.