Maryland’s football team opened the Michael Locksley era with ease, dominating its season debut to the extent that four quarterbacks had the chance to lead drives and the first-team players essentially closed up shop at halftime. But the reality of Saturday’s 79-0 victory, which featured 11 Terrapins touchdowns and a lockdown defense, was that the opponent was, well, Howard. The Football Championship Subdivision foe bears little resemblance to what the Terrapins will face when No. 21 Syracuse marches into College Park this weekend.
So how much does that Howard win really mean? Do season-opening blowouts provide any insight into how a team’s season will unfold? Maryland players say they won’t dwell on the result, and Locksley made note of the team’s correctable mistakes the moment he stepped to the lectern to speak with reporters after the game. But recent history says teams that win openers by 50 points or more typically finish with more victories based on overall win totals in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision.
Since 2000, the year Sports Reference’s single-game database begins, the average season win total for an FBS team is 6.5. In that same period of time and not counting this season, 101 FBS teams have won their season openers by at least 50 points; the average win total for those teams jumps to 8.3.
This isn’t to say that a season-opening blowout causes a team to win more games in a season. It simply means these programs are more likely to be the same ones that go on to finish the year well.
“That’s definitely a confidence-booster,” linebacker Shaq Smith said of the win against Howard, “but in the same breath, we have a 24-hour rule, where we celebrate that game on Saturday but Sunday we flip the page and we’re getting ready for our next game.”
There are still a handful of cautionary examples, which can remind fans that a strong debut might not indicate promise. Tulsa defeated Indiana State, 51-0, to begin the 2001 season and then went winless the rest of the season. Four times since 2000, teams have won their openers by at least 50 only to finish the year with a 3-9 record (Louisiana Tech in 2000, Eastern Michigan in 2008, Georgia Tech in 2015 and Marshall in 2016).
But about 85 percent of the time, these teams finish the year bowl eligible. Maryland falling short of a bowl game, which is the outcome projected by some advanced analytics, would be atypical.
Against Howard, Maryland jumped to a 28-0 lead by the end of the first quarter and a 56-0 advantage by halftime. Locksley removed his starters, giving the reserves valuable game experience, but the Terps continued to drive down the field without issues, leading to the massive margin of victory. The 79-point win stands as the second-largest margin of victory for an FBS team in its season opener since 2000, behind only Oklahoma State’s 84-point win over Savannah State in 2012.
Maybe this provides optimism, something to hold on to even though Saturday’s FCS opponent offered little opportunity to glimpse how this team will operate under Locksley. Maybe the lopsided result means the Terps are more likely to outperform expectations this season.
But inside the program, “we’re more about the process of how we practice, how we prepare, how we execute each and every play,” Locksley said in a response that would make Nick Saban, his former boss at Alabama and champion of the Process, proud. “And the scoreboard to us, we try not to let that even come into play when we game plan. … The key is to go in and get the corrections made for the fundamental mistakes or the mental errors that took place.”
So about those improvements. The 79-0 result screams there were few mistakes, at least not glaring ones, but the players have pinpointed the areas that need work. It would be unnatural for them not to.
In his Maryland debut that ended at halftime, quarterback Josh Jackson threw for 245 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. But on Tuesday, he rattled off some of his less-than-perfect moments — when he targeted and missed DJ Turner downfield on third and five rather than working through his progressions and some pre-snap penalties. (Maryland still finished the game with only 45 yards in penalties, a problem area last season.) And the defense, which didn’t allow any points and held Howard to just one first down in the first half, could have communicated better, Locksley said.
“Pre-snap, post-snap, even during the play, when we get back on the sideline, communicating what we’re seeing and the adjustments that we have to make,” said Smith, a graduate transfer from Clemson, the top-tier program that lost to Syracuse in 2017 and nearly lost again in 2018. “That’s the biggest thing that we took from that first game that we’ve been harping on thus far that’s going to help us this week.”
That’s where these players will direct their focus, not leaning on the opener that came as a welcomed start. Four other programs around the country — LSU, Penn State, Washington State and Central Florida — also had wins of at least 50 points to begin their season. History proves most teams that fall into this category will go on to have successful seasons, so now Maryland will hope it doesn’t become an outlier.