It isn’t very often that the most anticipated October sports event in College Park is anything other than Midnight Madness, the late-night basketball scrimmage that signals the onset of the college basketball season.
The Terrapins are 4-0, and some in the media have already anointed rookie coach D.J. Durkin the next Urban Meyer or Nick Saban or perhaps his own previous boss, Jim Harbaugh — without the perpetual scowl. What’s more, it isn’t insane to think Maryland could be 8-0 before it has to travel to Michigan to play Harbaugh’s fourth-ranked team Nov. 5 .
It should be savoredbecause, realistically, this is a season that presents itself once every 10 to 15 years: a weak schedule, perennially good teams having off years, the adrenaline of a new coach.
The Terrapins’ next four opponents hardly strike fear into anyone these days: Penn State had to come from 10 points down at home to beat Minnesota on Saturday, a week after losing 49-10 at Michigan. Then comes Minnesota, the team that lost to Penn State. The Gophers will be followed by Michigan State, which is normally a top-10 team but just lost at Indiana — another school that suffers through the fall in anticipation of basketball season. And a week after hosting the Spartans, the Terrapins travel to . . . Indiana.
None of those games is a lock win, but they’re all winnable. After that comes the Murderer’s Row portion of the schedule: at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Nebraska.
That’s when Maryland will likely find out that wins over Howard, Florida International, Central Florida and Purdue do not a national contender make. There’s no doubt that Durkin has benefitted from a truly awful nonconference schedule (no West Virginia) and the fact that the bottom feeders of the Big Ten — Purdue is terrible, and Rutgers, Maryland’s end-of-season “rival” — may be worse. Beyond that, this is that rarest of seasons when neither Michigan State nor Penn State is very good.
For the Spartans, this fall is probably an outlier. They have won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons. This will be a chance — at home — to get them. Penn State still hasn’t recovered from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Maryland won at State College two years ago and barely lost in Baltimore last October. James Franklin, once Maryland’s designated coach in waiting, is on the hot seat. With or without Franklin, the Nittany Lions aren’t going to be mediocre forever. Put the Lions in different uniforms right now, and Maryland probably beats them by two to three touchdowns. Only the aura remains.
The schedule setup has some echoes of Ralph Friedgen’s rookie year at Maryland. In 2001, the Terrapins went 10-2, winning the ACC title and going to the Orange Bowl. That team beat a bad (3-8) West Virginia team at home, won one game against a ranked team (at Georgia Tech in overtime) and was routed by both Florida State and Florida. Still, 10-2 was 10-2, and Friedgen backed it up with 11- and 10-win seasons from there.
Durkin isn’t going to be coaching in the ACC. He will be coaching in the tougher Big Ten East, and most years, it won’t be nearly as weak as it is this season. A schedule that will always include Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State will be daunting in the long term. Maryland’s opener next season will be at Texas — just a slightly tougher opponent than Howard.
Even so, if Durkin wins eight or nine games in his debut season in the wake of the dreary Randy Edsall era, he will be justifiably celebrated. If he keeps the Terrapins at that level consistently, he’s quickly going to become a hot coach nationally. He’s only 38 and has an appealing personality. You don’t become Meyer or Saban or Harbaugh at Maryland. That’s a fact. Durkin is bound to attract national attention if he can put together a 6-3 or even a 5-4 Big Ten record to go with the virtual walk-over nonconference schedule.
What made Friedgen perfect for Maryland was that he was an alumnus who was already 53 when he finally got his shot to be a head coach. He was never going to be someone who the big-time programs came after, and he wasn’t all that interested anyway: Maryland was the job he’d dreamed about for years. He would have happily retired there.
Bright young coaches get noticed very quickly by the power schools. Two years ago, Tom Herman was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. Come November, he’ll have at least four or five power schools throwing millions of dollars at his feet. If Houston doesn’t land a spot in the Big 12, Herman will down the road — he has to. Schools like Houston aren’t going to spend too many seasons in the top five or top 10.
Maryland is in a power conference. But it isn’t in Texas, and it is always going to be a basketball school first and foremost.
Durkin should be enjoyed while he’s here. He knows better than anyone that there’s a ceiling at Maryland, and when a school that can legitimately compete for national championships comes calling, he’s almost certainly going to be gone.
But that’s down the road, something to be concerned about when Harbaugh goes back to the NFL or Charlie Strong gets fired at Texas (which could be around the next corner) or when Southern Cal makes yet another change.
For now, Maryland fans should revel in an October that matters. They don’t come along very often.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.