Advocates of a Division I-A playoff system should turn their attention to Raleigh, N.C., this afternoon. A national championship isn't at stake, not with two .500 teams wrapping up disappointing seasons. Still, Maryland's game at N.C. State is the closest approximation to a playoff game that Division I-A can offer.
Both teams are 5-5. The winner will almost certainly move on to a postseason bowl, most likely in San Francisco or Boise, Idaho. The loser's season will end at Carter-Finley Stadium. It is one of only two such elimination games in the country this weekend.
"Nobody wants to go out a loser, because that's pretty much what it is," Maryland fullback Tim Cesa said. "It's just a one-game playoff: two ACC teams, who's gonna get that last spot."
And if the Terps are entering the playoffs, they likely are doing so short-handed because of suspensions stemming from an off-campus bar fight on Halloween night. After investigating the incident, which sent a bouncer to an area hospital with a broken nose, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen announced he would suspend three players one game each for participating in the fight. Citing federal privacy laws, Friedgen and school officials have declined to identify the players or specify when their suspensions would be served.
Sources have said senior wide receiver Derrick Fenner and junior wide receiver Drew Weatherly were among the suspended players. Fenner, Maryland's third-leading receiver, is expected to miss today's game. Weatherly did not play two weeks ago against North Carolina; Friedgen said Weatherly missed that game because of an injury, not a suspension.
An attempt to identify the third suspended player this week resulted in conflicting responses. Four sources close to the team said this past week that senior weak-side linebacker William Kershaw is not expected to play today, but Kershaw, a North Carolina native, said he would start. His father, William Kershaw Sr., said he expected his son to play.
Kershaw has started 21 consecutive games and is second on the team with 76 tackles. If he is unavailable, sophomore Wesley Jefferson would make his second career start in Maryland's most important game of the season.
When asked whether Jefferson could see more playing time at weak-side linebacker this week, Friedgen said it was possible. When asked if Jefferson would start, he said, "I don't know about that."
Friedgen has refused to answer any other questions related to the suspensions and declined to say whether his starting lineup would be different today, but he said he expected little-used freshman wide receivers Danny Oquendo and Isaiah Williams to get playing time.
The absence of any key contributor could be crucial in a game that figures to be particularly intense, and not merely because of the postseason stakes. Four of the last five times Maryland played N.C. State, the game has been decided in the final minute of regulation or in overtime.
Four years ago, the Terps clinched the ACC title against the Wolfpack by scoring a touchdown with 41 seconds left. Three years ago the Terps trailed N.C. State by 14 in the second half before finally taking their first lead on a field goal with 34 seconds left.
In their last trip to Raleigh, the Terps were down by 14 midway through the fourth quarter. They rallied with two touchdowns, trailed after missing an extra point and finally won on a field goal with 23 seconds left. Friedgen said he still has trouble believing Maryland won that game, while his players continue to laugh about what came next: a shower of bottles and epithets from N.C. State fans.
"It was chaos," Maryland center Ryan McDonald said. "I remember taking my helmet off and then seeing bottles coming . . . and just putting my helmet back on and buckling on the chin strap."
The teams have no natural geographic rivalry, but players said their recent past will add yet another layer of intrigue to this afternoon's game.
"The environment down there's going to be harsh, just like a couple years back," Maryland running back Lance Ball said. "We both don't like each other, so it's going to be another war."
Said N.C. State cornerback Marcus Hudson: "We've had 1,000 close games with Maryland, and it always turned out that Maryland was the winner. Something's always on the line and Maryland ends up winning at the last minute. Everybody's going to use that as motivation."
And then, of course, there is the other source of motivation: the chance for a winning record. Both teams finished 5-6 last year. One team will have an identical record this season. The other team will move on.
"Six-and-five, you know you're bowl eligible and that's the biggest thing," Hudson said. "That's all that matters right now to us. Five-and-six, you're at home, not at a bowl. You're probably going to the bowling alley, but you're not with your teammates, you're not with your coaches, you're just at home. And that's a bad feeling."