For most of the last decade and a half, an ACC team couldn’t ask for a much friendlier matchup than what Maryland will encounter Saturday when it visits Duke.
These are the Blue Devils, owners of 14 straight losing seasons but a remarkably unfamiliar foe to the Terrapins. No current Maryland player has faced Duke, and the prospect of a potential pummeling sure sounded good in the winter and spring.
That was then, though.
“Coming into the season, when I saw we played Duke, I was excited,” safety Jamari McCollough said. “I was like, ‘Yes, it might be an easy win for us.’ But I’ve definitely changed my mind.”
The Terps (2-5, 1-2 ACC) demonstrated over the last month and a half they can be counted upon for no sure things. Meanwhile, Duke (3-3, 1-1) is halfway to its first bowl appearance since 1994 and is coming off a dissection of N.C. State and a bye week to prepare for the closing stretch.
Oh, and then there’s this tidbit: Duke opened the week as an eight-point favorite, though the line fell to five in recent days.
“Are we favored?” Duke coach David Cutcliffe asked reporters this week. “Lord have mercy.”
It’s a situation Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen saw coming more than a year ago when Cutcliffe was starting his first season. Friedgen, at the time figuring he wouldn’t see the Blue Devils until 2010, mused Cutcliffe would build Duke into a national contender by then. When told the next meeting between the schools was actually in 2009, Friedgen accelerated his projection of Duke’s rise by a season.
While the Blue Devils aren’t collecting top-25 votes, they are a vastly superior outfit to the teams that compiled a 10-82 record from 2000 to 2007. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, with the help of a young but talented receiving corps, is thriving in Cutcliffe’s potent offense.
The Terps, meanwhile, aren’t much familiar with Duke at all. The ACC expanded to 12 teams in 2005, but its current schedule rotation didn’t start until a year later. That allowed two series - Maryland-Duke and Florida State-North Carolina - to lapse for five years before picking up this week.
One sign of the gap between games against Duke: In the teams’ last meeting, the Terps’ Joel Statham enjoyed a career day, throwing for 362 yards and four touchdowns. Need another? Maryland has played Middle Tennessee three times since it last saw the Blue Devils.
The scheduling quirk effectively turned the Terps’ trip into a conference game with the familiarity of a nonconference opponent.
“It’s just weird we haven’t played them,” quarterback Chris Turner said. “I haven’t been there. I haven’t seen them. I don’t know anything about them. I know they’re a very different team now than when I was a freshman. They have really skilled players at all their positions now. It’s not the old Duke at all. So lucky me.”
Indeed, there is some role reversal. Duke is in solid shape for a bowl berth, as Maryland usually is this time of year. And the Terps are eager to find a way out of a recent rut, historically a familiar place for the Blue Devils once October arrives.
“This is a different team,” fullback Cory Jackson said. “We have to realize that they’re not the team they were five years ago. They’re not the team we watched on TV playing and getting their butts beat every week. This is an improving team that wants to show something. They would like to do big things this season.”
The Terps still would, too. It just won’t be easy - even against Duke.
Note - Friedgen said tailback Gary Douglas (shoulder) will miss the game. Davin Meggett and Caleb Porzel are expected to be Maryland’s top backs, but both D.J. Adams and Morgan Green will make the trip.