Friday, November 16, 2001

Is there any doubt that tomorrow’s Maryland-N.C. State clash is the biggest football game, locally speaking, since the Redskins went to the Super Bowl in ‘91?

Good. Then we can move on to more important matters such as why it’s the biggest game, locally speaking, in a decade.

Reason No. 1: Because Ralph Friedgen says so.

Well, maybe not in so many words. But Ralph suggested as much when he said, “We have to understand the opportunity that we have.”

And, boy, do the Terps ever have an opportunity. I’m not just talking about going to a major bowl or winning 10 games for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. I’m talking about ending nine years of Florida State tyranny in the ACC.

I know, I know. The Seminoles have done some wonderful things for the conference. They’ve given it credibility and visibility and put much-needed money in athletic department pockets. But they’ve also turned it into the biggest bore in college football. Sucked the fun right out of it. I mean, how entertaining can a conference be when eight of its nine members are playing for second place every season?

You know how many Pac-10 teams have been to the Rose Bowl since Florida State joined the ACC nine years ago? Eight. The Big Ten has had six different champions in that time, the Big 12 and Big East four each and the SEC three.

Beginning to get the picture? The ACC has been the least competitive major conference in the country by far. In fact, you’d have to go back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, when Oklahoma bestrode the Big Eight for 14 straight seasons (1946-59) to find a team that dominated a conference longer than the Seminoles have slapped around the ACC.

The year before Florida State came aboard (1991), Clemson took the conference title. The year before that, it was Georgia Tech. The year before that, Virginia and Duke (under some guy named Spurrier) shared the honors. This is the way a conference is supposed to work. All programs might not be created equal, but everybody, sooner or later, gets a bite at the apple.

Except in the ACC. Until now. (OK, in ‘95 FSU tied for the title with Virginia, but in the end the Seminoles went to the Orange Bowl and the Cavaliers got shuffled off to the Peach.)

Anyway, this is one of those seminal moments in sports history, and Maryland has the lead part in it. All the Terps have to do is beat N.C. State in Raleigh, and the Florida State dragon will be slain.

And that’s just for starters. The Terps also will capture their first conference crown since ‘85 (a feat that earned them a berth in the esteemed Cherry Bowl), will have alumni naming their children after them and will be able to get a date with just about any co-ed they want.

Maybe that’s what Friedgen meant when he said, “We have to understand the opportunity that we have here.”

Or maybe he was referring to the second chance the rare second chance his team has gotten. Let’s face it, after Maryland unraveled in the fourth quarter against Florida State three weeks ago, its hopes of winning the ACC dimmed considerably. The Seminoles, at that point, already had one conference loss; a second figured to require the consent of the Florida legislature.

But Friedgen told his players to keep pushing, to keep the faith, and sure enough, N.C. State went down to Tallahassee last weekend and knocked off FSU. Which makes the Terps’ game against the Wolfpack a much more iffy proposition. Obviously, the ‘Pack are playing with confidence, and they have the talent to give anyone trouble. Their quarterback, Philip Rivers, can hit you in the bellybutton at 40 paces, and one of their linebackers, Levar Fisher, is tops in the ACC in tackles.

Maryland, of course, has had its share of big-game disasters in recent years. Like the last-second, season-ending loss to Virginia in ‘99 that kept the Terps out of a bowl. Or the 31-3 egg they laid at Georgia Tech after a 4-0 start in ‘95. This year’s team bears little resemblance to those outfits, though. It won at Tech and has risen to just about every challenge the coach has issued.

As long as the Terps “understand the opportunity that we have here,” I suspect they’ll do just fine tomorrow. I’ve got one last challenge for them, though. If you happen to win, guys, I want you to put all that weight training to work and carry the Big Fella off the field.

Ready? Lift.

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