As Maryland worked out on its practice field Tuesday afternoon, a passing car on an adjoining campus street momentarily slowed.
"Now or never, Terps," a passenger yelled out the car window.
Not quite, but close enough. This afternoon's game at North Carolina kicks off a three-game closing stretch that will settle several questions for a .500 Maryland team: Whether the Terps will be eligible for their fourth postseason bowl in five years. Whether last year's 5-6 season will eventually be seen as a brief blip in Ralph Friedgen's successful tenure or something more significant. Whether September's missed opportunities will torment the Terps throughout the offseason or be written off as growing pains for an inexperienced but improving team.
"It's down to these last three games," Friedgen said, "and that's really the season. It's a three-game season."
The Terps need to win only two of the three games to finish with a winning record, but for a host of reasons, they would be well advised not to tarry.
First, there's the matter of the ACC's bloating midsection, which threatens to consume a majority of the league. Last week's chaos -- with North Carolina State upsetting Florida State and North Carolina surprising Boston College -- set up the possibility of seven ACC teams finishing with identical 6-5 records.
"Not a surprise to me," said North Carolina Coach John Bunting, whose team, like Maryland and N.C. State, is 4-4. "I think there's going to be teams bunched now and forever."
If that scenario happens, 10 ACC teams would finish above .500, and at least one or two bowl-eligible teams probably would be left out of the postseason picture.
The league has six guaranteed bowl slots, and officials are already searching for other possible openings. The SEC, for example, likely won't fill its eight slots, and might not even produce seven bowl-eligible teams.
By winning all its remaining games, Maryland would at once diminish three of its potential fellow travelers -- North Carolina, Boston College and N.C. State -- and rise above the 6-5 stew.
Still, the very fact that two of Maryland's remaining opponents -- North Carolina and N.C. State -- are in an identical position has created a potentially treacherous round-robin ending. After today, North Carolina plays wretched Duke at home, a likely win, and travels to No. 8 Virginia Tech, a likely loss. Today's game, then, could well define the Tar Heels' season.
Similarly, N.C. State plays at Boston College today and hosts Middle Tennessee State next week, and so if the Wolfpack split those two games . . .
"I'm only looking at practice today, so don't even go any further than that," N.C. State Coach Chuck Amato said earlier this week.
Well, fine. Let's instead consider the end of last season, when Maryland also took a 4-4 record into its final three games, and when -- like this year -- two of those games were on the road. The Terps lost the first two by a combined score of 71-6, rendering their final game largely inconsequential.
"Being in this situation of almost maybe not making it to a bowl game, you always feel that pressure from last year, and you're hearing some of the same stuff you heard last year," linebacker-defensive end Ricardo Dickerson said. "It's pressure, but at the same time this is what you come to college for."
And with Maryland's preseason goal -- a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., for the ACC championship game -- already discarded, players and coaches have settled on a postseason appearance as the next best thing.
"It's important for the program; it's important for the fans; it's important for the young guys," linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. "We know we can win ballgames. We're in every ballgame. Just now we've got to cut down on mistakes and be perfect from here on out."