The University of Maryland football team is going to play another game this season.
The Terps’ final game won’t be “sexy.” A number of fans might lose it in the shuffle of the holiday season, and a win won’t put the Terps in the final top 25 poll of the season. But they are playing another football game this season, their first bowl appearance under head coach Michael Locksley.
I’ve been wrestling with the question, “Does getting bowl eligible make this a successful season for Maryland?” And oh buddy, I have to tell you, I absolutely do NOT have an answer still.
Let’s start with the obvious. Getting bowl eligible is definitely better than the alternative. Some Maryland teams in recent years may have crumbled in the aftermath of deflating results and mounting injuries down the stretch and lost a game with the postseason at stake. You may remember that the week before their near-upset of Ohio State, the 2018 Terps lost a 34-32 game to Indiana that would have been their sixth win and was most certainly their best chance at clinching a bowl appearance.
It is at least some sort of statement that these Terps went on the road, down some of their top players, having suffered multiple deflating losses and still got the job done in a must-win game against a Rutgers team that also had postseason aspirations and had recorded wins at Illinois and Indiana in the second half of the season.
(I’m not trying to oversell that. Rutgers is by no means good. But we have seen worse Rutgers teams than this one. No reasonable Maryland fan would have truly been gobsmacked had the Terrapins limped to the finish line of the regular season.)
Alas, recording a single victory against Rutgers does not a successful season make. The question is far more complicated than this. The question covers a multitude of layers. Is bowl eligibility alone a reasonable goal in the third season for a head coach? Is that mitigated by the second season having been so bastardized? Should expectations be altered considering just how good Michigan State was this season to go along with the already treacherous group of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State within the division (not to mention a cross-division game against Iowa)?
And honestly, this is Maryland football we’re talking about. What can anyone reasonably expect in any season with any head coach? Oh, and did I mention the injuries? The Terps finally kept a quarterback healthy, only to see top playmakers go down instead! How does that influence this?
But other than all that, this is really simple to decipher.
Here’s the best answer I’ve been able to come up with. Given all of the extraordinary circumstances, we CAN view bowl eligibility as a level of success for the 2021 Terrapins. But that doesn’t mean we HAVE to.
What am I saying? If you’re the type of human who wants to say something like, “All they got was six wins? That’s trash,” you either already know you’re a troll OR it’s important that we make it very clear. That take lacks any modicum of necessary context, and is an unfair reflection of the trajectory of the program. But if what you’re feeling is something more along the lines of, “That’s cool, I guess, but I’m skeptical about how much more they can do,” that’s probably a fair take! This is Maryland football we’re talking about. It has been a generation since it’s earned the benefit of the doubt!
In fact, in the aftermath of making it to bowl eligibility, the Terps have already lost some recent high-level recruits (linebackers Terrence Lewis and Branden Jennings) to the transfer portal. That’s … not encouraging!
Of course, a good percentage of all college football players are entering the transfer portal these days, and Locksley has shown a propensity to not just recruit well but also find help via the portal (see Tagovailoa, Taulia), so that’s not worth being apoplectic about, either.
In a strange way, the 6-6 record would be more inspiring if Maryland had, say, swapped out the gutsy win at Illinois earlier in the season for a win against one of the more well thought of opponents on the schedule. Part of the reason the fan base is struggling to embrace bowl eligibility is because it still fears the Terrapins can’t compete with the conference’s top dogs, which will be necessary to take future steps as a program. Maryland, of course, defeated Penn State on the road (albeit with no fans) in 2020, but it is essentially impossible to remember anything about that abomination of a “season.”
Winning the bowl game against another Power 5 conference team (even it isn’t a particularly good team this season) would be helpful for this fan base. Pummeling Tennessee in the 2002 Peach Bowl was perhaps the statement moment of the Ralph Friedgen era. It is ironic to remember that those 2002 Volunteers weren’t even a ranked team at that point (although they were favorites).
Bowl eligibility is a necessary step. And given everything this program has been through, it was one worthy of at least an amount of recognition. But it is understandable that some in the fan base will remain trepidatious until it becomes the floor for expectations and not the ceiling.
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