- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Is Maryland football really ready for the big time? Last night's Kickoff Classic date with Notre Dame at Giants Stadium should have provided a partial answer, but it might take a while longer for the Terrapins to complete the l-o-o-n-g leap from patsy to powerhouse.
Over the decades, even some of the best Maryland teams have tended to vanish like presumed Meadowlands resident Jimmy Hoffa in the truly big games. (Of course, Terps boss Ralph Friedgen, like all other coaches, considers every game a "big game," but beating the fertilizer out of Duke or Troy State hardly qualifies.)
Even last fall, when Friedgen wrought that 10-2 miracle out of dust, the Terps showed few signs of ranking among the nation's true elite, no matter the rankings. Yes, they ended lengthy runs of futility in the ACC by dispatching Clemson, which had won the last eight games of the series; Georgia Tech, against which Maryland had been 3-10 since 1989; and North Carolina, which had licked the Terps seven of the last eight times.
All of that added up to an ACC championship, for whatever that was worth, but Maryland's two losses were more one-sided than the Spanish-American War: to Florida State, 52-31 during the regular season, and Florida, 56-23 in the Orange Bowl.
If you're scoring at home, that's an average difference of 27 points against two perennial college football bullies. The Terps don't play the Gators that often, thank heaven, but the Seminoles have whacked Maryland by an average of 36 points in 10 non-contests since 1992.
In other words, ouch.
So it might be smart for Terps fans to hold off with the "we're No.1" chants for a while at least until Maryland proves it can consistently beat top opposition. At this point, "we're No.10" seems like a more realistic goal for the next couple of seasons.
Last night's game gave the Terps a chance to overcome a school with the nation's most storied tradition and history, but many are expecting the Fighting Irish to finish their season at Southern Cal on Nov. 30, not in a bowl game. After all, they went 5-6 last fall, thus giving coach Bob Davie a chance to join ESPN as one of its college football analysts. Then came the fiasco of brand-new coach George O'Leary being fired a week after taking the job for telling fibs on his resume, and the embarrassment of several players being charged with rape this summer.
All together now: Jeer, jeer for old Notre Dame. Wake up the police cheering her name.
A better test for the Terps probably will come in Week 3, when Florida State gallops into Byrd Stadium. (In between the two games, Maryland plays Akron, which is sort of like the United States confronting the Soviet Union, the Canary Islands and China in that order during Cold War days.)
Even back during Jim Tatum's glorious reign of the early 1950s, Maryland had trouble winning the biggest games after springing a 28-13 surprise on No.1 (and supposedly invincible) Tennessee in the '52 Sugar Bowl. Already anointed as national champions there were no post-bowl rankings in those days the unbeaten Terps were skunked by Oklahoma 7-0 in the '54 Orange Bowl. By way of proving that was no accident, the Sooners did a 20-6 repeat in Miami two years later.
A 16-year drought followed when the Terps didn't win much of anything after Tatum departed in 1956. Jerry Claiborne returned the program to respectability, and then some, in the early '70s, but the failures against name opponents continued. Claiborne's 1974 team lost a heartbreaking 21-17 opener against Alabama and continued to have no luck at all against Penn State (Maryland had gone 0-27-1 against the Nittany Lions when the series mercifully was terminated in 1994.)
The most painful loss of all for Claiborne, a fine coach and man who died last year, was the 1977 Cotton Bowl: The Terps came in at 11-0, fell behind Houston 21-0 in a dismal first quarter and lost 30-21. Two seasons later, Texas applied a 42-0 haymaker in the Sun Bowl.
Oh, sure, Maryland had some postseason success under Bobby Ross and Joe Krivak further down the road, but I wouldn't exactly call the 1990 Poulan/WeedEater Independence Bowl (a 34-34 tie with Louisiana Tech) memorable.
So Maryland has a way to go before ascending to the ranks of honest-to-goodness football baddies and perhaps challenging for the national championship and national recognition borne so proudly by Gary Williams' basketball brigade. But there's nothing wrong with that because, one short year ago, even the suggestion would have brought snickers.


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