- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

MIAMI — The question for Ralph Friedgen was simple: If he were a gambling man, would he bet on his Maryland football team to astound Florida in tonight's 68th Orange Bowl?

In another time and place, the Fridge might have tossed out a one-liner something like, "Only fools bet on football games, and I ain't nobody's fool." But the Terrapins' first New Year's bowl date in a quarter-century is no laughing matter, so he muttered mundanely about how the NCAA doesn't permit betting and he could be fired for doing so.

Thanks a lot, Ralph baby. Just a little uptight, are we?

As photographers then snapped dum-dum pictures of Friedgen and Florida coach Steve Spurrier hovering awkwardly over a bowl of oranges you were expecting maybe prunes? Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow stood nearby exuding confidence, sort of.

"No, I'm not nervous," avowed Yow, perpetrating what had to be an enormous fib. "I'm confident because I know that if we execute, it can be done."

Nobody had to ask what it was. Considering that Maryland is ranked only one spot below No. 5 Florida and has a better record (10-1 to 9-2), the odds favoring the Gators by 15 points normally would seem way out of line. Except that …

Florida plays on a different level than Maryland, just as Southeastern Conference football operates on a different level than the ACC brand. In recent years, only Florida State and Georgia Tech from the ACC have been in the hunt for national championships. In the SEC, nearly everybody at least dreams of winning what passes for a national championship under the NCAA's Twilight Zone method of determining it.

The Gators' recruiting net usually pulls in bigger and faster, if not necessarily smarter, athletes than Maryland's. That could change, but for now you won't hear too many high school blue-chippers hither, thither and yon chirping that their lifetime ambition is to be a Terp. It takes a whole bunch of winning seasons and lots of successful national TV exposure to create that effect.

Of course, such a run has to start somewhere, and what better time than between 8 and the witching hour this evening?

Although Friedgen blew off the possibility yesterday, the impending struggle could get considerably more interesting if the Gators mail it in. (If you're looking for omens, this is, after all, the FedEx Orange Bowl.) Florida would have been playing Miami for the national title in tomorrow night's Rose Bowl but for that agonizing 34-32 loss to Tennessee in the final regular-season game. The Gators want to be in Miami right now about as much as George Bush wants to kiss Tom Daschle, and that could make a difference.

Spurrier appeared to be taking a gamble of his own one he obviously feels is necessary by saying yesterday that Heisman Trophy runner-up Rex Grossman, whose right arm produced 3,896 yards and 34 touchdowns, won't start because he missed a curfew last week. Steve Superior said backup Brock Berlin will open at quarterback and stay there as long as he moves the team, but if the Terps hang tough at the start look for Grossman to exit the doghouse faster than a greyhound chasing the rabbit at one of the local woof-woof tracks.

It's worth noting, too, that the Terps have a couple of not-so-secret weapons in Nick Novak and Brooks Barnard, two guys who just might get the biggest kicks of anybody from being here.

Novak, a redshirt freshman from Charlottesville, hit 12 of his last 14 field goals, half from 40 or more yards, and drilled a 46-yarder to tie Georgia Tech at the end of regulation and a 26-yarder in overtime to win it. Barnard, a senior from Oklahoma who was named after Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, finished seventh in the nation with a 44.5 punting average and deposited a whopping 17 kicks inside the enemy 20. Said Friedgen: "There's no doubt they could play a key (read: winning) role."

And both claim, like Yow, that there's nothing to be nervous about.

"Sure, this season is like a fairy tale," but it's not like we came out of nowhere," said Barnard, a former walk-on. "We had the ability all the time, but finally the chemistry with our coaches was enough for us to put it all together." (Take that, Ron Vanderlinden.) Added Novak: "I'm looking at the Orange Bowl as just another game except that the Terps will be in position to shock the world."

Well, will they? I don't know and I wouldn't bet the house, but wouldn't it be nice if Somebody Up There smiled on this most surprising and appealing team one more time?

Maryland 34, Florida 28.

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