Regardless of how you feel about Maryland’s first four games, let’s call the next three games what they are: a critical stretch that will define the Terrapins’ season. They visit No. 13 Georgia Tech (5-0) on Saturday, followed by a home date with No. 8 Clemson (5-0) and then a trip awaits to No. 23 Florida State (2-2).
For an ACC team, this is about as tough of a stretch as one can imagine. And we will know exactly what this team is and isn’t by the morning of Oct. 23. If Maryland is successful the next three weeks, it could still falter later in the season. But if the Terrapins go winless the next three weeks - they probably will be heavy underdogs in each game --- they will see their ACC title hopes evaporate and find themselves scrambling to become bowl eligible.
Here are some observations, notes and thoughts from the weekend:
Encouraged or discouraged?: Four games of the Randy Edsall era are in the books, and I would venture to say that most fans are discouraged by what they have witnessed. The offense and defense are still searching for identities. The season-opening victory against Miami has been cast in a new light because the Hurricanes, even with many key players back from suspensions, have underwhelmed. In terms of confidence of the fan base, the most damaging loss was the Temple debacle, for which there remains no rational explanation. Did you see the Temple-Toledo score Saturday? All that said, the Terps have an opportunity to quickly garner credibility.
Will the trend continue?: Most fans know this statistic by now: Edsall is 1-17 against nationally ranked teams in his career. He draws three consecutive ranked teams the next three weeks. Maryland earned its 9-4 record last season with a notable advantage in turnover margin. But the Terrapins also benefited from a manageable schedule. The schedule is more difficult this season, and the next three weeks, win or lose, will illustrate that. Each game presents unique schematic challenges and features skilled offensive and defensive playmakers.
Keeping Georgia Tech under 50: Say what you want about Georgia Tech’s schedule, but the Yellow Jackets beat a North Carolina defense dotted with a few future NFL players. Paul Johnson’s team averages 50 points a game. That’s not a misprint. Maybe Oregon East can be found in Atlanta. They have a ridiculous eight one-play touchdown drives. They scored 45 points Saturday against North Carolina State — with the help of a defensive touchdown — even though quarterback Tevin Washington had a subpar game. It is difficult enough for any team to prepare for the triple-option in one week. Maryland must do it with a reduced practice schedule of 17.5 hours this week and an injury-depleted defense.
Bruised, with little rest: Edsall said he will not discuss injuries the rest of the season. But the defense in particular is battered. Five key players have been out. It has forced the Terrapins to start three freshmen defensively, not the situation you want preparing to face the nation’s No. 1 team in rushing offense and the No. 2 team in total offense and scoring offense. Looking forward, what makes the road more treacherous is that Maryland already had its bye week. The only respite from the ACC schedule is the game at FedEx Field against seemingly improved Notre Dame, which could be destined for a BCS game if it avoids a slew of turnovers.
A self-imposed offensive slowdown?: There are indications that Maryland might be slowing the tempo of an offense that was billed as very up-tempo after the Miami victory. The Terrapins can’t afford to have these three-and-out drives that milk about 30 seconds off the clock. Their defense gets little rest. And quick, no-reward offensive drives would be particularly costly against a Yellow Jackets team that can both sustain long drives and unleash explosive plays. Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien said the offense has many different ways to attack defenses — spread-zone read, pro-style looks, power downhill running game, etc. — and that the unit remains in search of a clear identity. “When you have all that stuff, it is kind of hard to classify who you are,” O’Brien said. “I think we are going to have to. You can be good at a lot of things, or great at fewer things. We are trying to figure out what we can be great at.”
What about Friedgen’s radio interview comments?: The fan base has mixed reaction about former Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen saying that he has burned his Maryland diploma and is now flying a Georgia Tech flag. It is understandable that Friedgen remains upset after being fired after 10 seasons at his alma mater and after earning his second ACC coach of the year award. No matter how you feel about the decision to fire the man who established a fairly high upside for the program, it’s hard to argue that the firing process itself was handled smoothly. So, was it wise for Friedgen to air his feelings publicly? That’s up to him. But it’s not surprising. Friedgen does not have a filter, and that was only one of the reasons why he was such a fascinating coach to cover. He invited reporters into his office three days a week for casual conversations about his players and campus life and football and society in general. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, one reason why many fans still view him favorably.
Special teams struggles: The special teams unit may be the biggest concern after four games. Edsall said he saw some improvement that encouraged him in the Towson game. He is playing as many as four true freshmen on the kickoff coverage unit. But in two weeks we have seen a 78-yard kickoff return, a blocked field goal, a blocked punt, a roughing the kicker penalty, etc. Entering the heart of ACC play, the Terrapins need to improve in a hurry.
Clemson sheds old label: I was a hardliner in my position that Clemson was a fraud on the football field. Every season, the Tigers would find a way to substantiate their erratic reputation. And I wrongly picked against them the past three games against nationally relevant opponents. But after Saturday’s romp at Virginia Tech, it is clear that this is a different Clemson team. (This may also be a different Virginia Tech team as well, but that’s another story.) The Tigers still may have a clunker on the horizon, but with a favorable schedule, they are the clear favorites in the Atlantic Division right now.
An interesting quote: When asked Sunday whether the Maryland job has been more difficult than he anticipated, Edsall said: “That is a good question. I am having fun at what I am doing.” Edsall went on to say that his focus is “all about the team concept, accountability and teamwork. We are working at it every day.”