The positive spin generated within Maryland's Gossett Team House is based on the Terps being one play away from an undefeated record despite erratic quarterback play. A more ominous examination of the season, however, reveals a team one play away from having two losses with eight games remaining that could be tougher than anyone had imagined.
Acknowledging that this could be a "tough year," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen cautioned throughout summer practice that a fourth-straight 10-win season might not be realistic with his team's youth and the strength of the revamped Atlantic Coast Conference.
Fortunately for 23rd-ranked Maryland, it will not play two of the more dangerous ACC teams this season: Miami and -- gasp! -- North Carolina. On Saturday, the Tar Heels routed Georgia Tech, which had earlier won at Clemson, which had been ranked near the top 10 in several preseason polls. Only four ACC teams -- Miami, Florida State, Virginia and Maryland -- are ranked in the Top 25, but many say the league is deeper than expected, as even second-tier teams -- North Carolina, Wake Forest -- are proving formidable.
"It's going to be like the wild, wild west," Friedgen said Sunday of the remaining schedule. "You'd better be ready to play every game. It wouldn't surprise me to see a team have two [ACC] losses win the conference."
The ACC champion hasn't lost two conference games since 1965, when Duke won the league with a 4-2 conference record. But with this season a quarter over, early results suggest Friedgen is on point: Three of the first four ACC games this season were decided by four points or less or in overtime. As North Carolina State Coach Chuck Amato concluded, "Everyone in this league is getting better in football."
While road games against Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech, along with a home date against Florida State, loom as the Terps' most difficult tests, each game after this Saturday's visit to Duke (0-3) could be tougher than expected.
For starters, teams are confident rather than complacent. Virginia has recorded three consecutive 500-yard offensive games for its first 3-0 start since 1998. But Coach Al Groh conceded, "The big tests are yet to come."
Wake Forest (2-1) beat North Carolina A&T 42-3 Saturday and had pushed Clemson into double overtime in its season opener before falling 37-30. Said North Carolina A&T Coach George Small, "I guarantee they will go a long way in the ACC this season."
And after N.C. State, which leads the nation in total defense, lost to Ohio State, 22-14, on Saturday, Amato's message was clear: "We go into conference play this week, so let's go win the ACC."
That task has never seemed so daunting for conference teams. Maryland, meantime, has more immediate concerns after its 19-16 overtime loss to West Virginia before it can envision a league title. Friedgen is pleased that his young players and first-year starting quarterback Joel Statham have endured a difficult road environment to toughen them mentally before they face three arduous road tests beginning in late October. "Two things that wear you out," Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe said, "are not only traveling but playing in front of hostile crowds."
Case in point: How long can Maryland's defense remain stout in road games when the offense self-destructs? The defense, led by end Shawne Merriman, linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and David Holloway and an aggressive secondary, took away West Virginia's big plays. The Mountaineers, who had averaged some 500 yards of offense through two games, managed only two touchdowns, one in overtime and one when West Virginia began a first-quarter drive at the Maryland 6 after an interception return. "I think we held up strong all the way until the end of the game," Merriman said.
Friedgen said all summer that his young players would commit mistakes; he only hoped the errors wouldn't cost the team a victory. Yet he continued to speak in optimistic terms this weekend, praising his players' effort and saying that he expected such adversity at this point of the season.
"We're going to get better," Friedgen vowed after the game. "I promise you that."
Though Maryland (2-1) was a play away from beating its first top 10 team during Friedgen's tenure, miscues became the storyline. Statham threw three first-half interceptions, giving him four on the season, a mark last year's starter, Scott McBrien, did not reach until the seventh game. "It was pretty much me," Statham said of the interceptions. "I have to make the right reads."
Noise was one problem that caused Maryland's numerous logistical errors involving relaying signals and moving incorrectly when audibles were called. Friedgen pledged to simulate such conditions in practice this week, even though the ambience at Wallace Wade Stadium this weekend doesn't promise to be imposing. While not overlooking Duke, Friedgen continues to build for the latter portion of the season, when his teams traditionally have played the best.
"We're going to face that eventually, whether it's at Virginia or Virginia Tech or Clemson," Friedgen said. "So we better get good at it if we are going to have a chance to win."