The college football season reaches its midpoint this weekend, and three area teams face season-defining games, perhaps program-defining games for Virginia Coach Al Groh and Navy Coach Paul Johnson. If the Cavaliers and Midshipmen can overcome the hurdles that have stood in their way for more than a decade -- Florida State and Notre Dame, respectively -- they could be headed for truly magical seasons.
For Maryland, which fell out of the top 25 yesterday after its 13-game home winning streak was ended with a 20-7 upset loss to Georgia Tech, the goal is just as daunting: keep its head above water in the ACC by beating N.C. State in College Park on Saturday.
Rarely have area college football fans been treated to such an intriguing midseason doubleheader as Saturday's Navy-Notre Dame and Virginia-Florida State games. The Cavaliers and Midshipmen, who have seldom generated success in the same season, are two of only 14 undefeated teams left in Division I-A. To remain undefeated, they'll try to end droughts against two of the sport's traditional powers in nationally televised games. Virginia has beaten the Seminoles only once; Navy hasn't beaten the Fighting Irish in four decades.
Virginia climbed to a No. 6 ranking yesterday, its highest since being No. 1 after seven games in 1990. The seventh-ranked Seminoles (4-1, 2-1 ACC) have beaten Virginia (5-0, 2-0) in 11 of 12 meetings since FSU joined the ACC in 1992, winning the last seven games by an average of 25 points.
The Cavaliers were close to winning last season, losing 19-14 in Charlottesville, but they've never won in FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium, where the Seminoles have beaten them six times by an average of more than three touchdowns.
"They're the defending [ACC] champs," Groh said. "Until somebody knocks them off the throne, they're the champs. Until you knock off the champs, that's what everybody is measured against."
So far, the Cavaliers have measured up well to their competition. They've run over their first five opponents, scoring at least 30 points in each game and holding all but one of their opponents to 14 points or fewer. Plus, Virginia has had two extra days to prepare for the Seminoles since beating Clemson, 30-10, last Thursday night. Florida State struggled in a 17-13 win at Syracuse last Saturday.
While Groh has said his team is stepping up to "World Series competition," he also is attempting to minimize the importance of Saturday's game to his players. The Cavaliers must still play No. 3 Miami, Maryland and intrastate rival Virginia Tech during the regular season. But in Groh's fourth season at his alma mater, a victory over Florida State would validate his program.
"It's not the BCS championship game," Groh said, referring to the Bowl Championship Series title game, the Orange Bowl, which determines at least half of the sport's national championship. "They all count one and there are 11 games. That's how it is."
Make no mistake, Notre Dame, along with Army, of course, are the games left on Navy's schedule. Since Johnson arrived in Annapolis after the 2001 season, the Midshipmen (5-0) have accomplished just about everything -- winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy last season, beating Air Force two years in a row and playing in a bowl game. But the Midshipmen haven't beaten Notre Dame since a 35-14 victory in South Bend, Ind., on Nov. 2, 1963, when Roger Staubach was Navy's quarterback. The Fighting Irish have beaten Navy 40 consecutive times, the longest losing streak to one team in NCAA history.
Notre Dame (4-2) upset then-No. 8 Michigan earlier this season, but the Fighting Irish also looked more than mediocre in losses to Brigham Young and Purdue. The Irish had to rally and score 20 points in the second half of their 23-15 win over Stanford last Saturday. Last season, Navy lost to Notre Dame, 27-24, on a 40-yard field goal as time expired; the Midshipmen lost to the Irish by seven points the year before. Because of those scores, and Navy's fast start, many believe this is the season the Midshipmen's drought finally ends.
"They said it last year and the year before," Johnson said. "Who knows what's going to happen, that's why they play the game. Do we have a chance? Yes. Will we be favored? Probably not. You can ask our guys, but I doubt that we have anybody on our team that got recruited by Notre Dame. It's David vs. Goliath. To me, the pressure is on Notre Dame."
The spotlight this weekend won't be as bright for Maryland (3-2, 1-1 ACC), but the stakes are just as high. After losing to Georgia Tech for the second season in a row ("The worst we've played in a long time," Coach Ralph Friedgen said), the Terps can't afford to lose another ACC game at home, especially with road games at Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech left.
"One loss in the conference and you're a 'maybe' for the conference championship," Maryland defensive end Shawne Merriman said. "Two losses and you're out. It's too early in the season to have a 'maybe.' "