Last night, my buddy Rick called me up. He and his family has had season tickets to the Terps since he graduated. They usually have up to four tickets which allows him, his dad, and his mom, and one other guest to show up. However, his mom rarely shows up for these games, so that usually leaves at least one ticket free for someone else. I happened to be that someone else. I haven't been to a Terps game since, well, the last time Rick invited me.
Last year was disastrous for Maryland. They had a 5-6 season and no bowl after three consecutive seasons of making the bowl. The first year under Friedgen, the team had ten wins, and was the ACC representative when Florida State had a misstep. Despite the fabulous season, it would take until last season, Friedgen's fouth, to beat Florida State. That first, magical season was rewarded by a matchup with Steve Spurrier's Florida team.
Every since Spurrier had been Florida's coach, some ten years earlier, he was averaging ten win seasons. His teams were always on the verge of winning the national championship, but often fell just short. This shows how strong Florida was, but unfortunately, Spurrier found it difficult to beat his cross-state rival, Florida State, coached by the folksy, Bobby Bowden, who also was on the verge of winning national championships each year as well, were it not for one of their rivals, Miami.
FSU (as Florida State is also known as) had a series of games against Miami which came down to a field goal. Three games were decided by last minute field goal misses. These games were famous enough to be given names based on the field goal failures, titled, Wide Right I and Wide Right 2 (there was even a Wide Left, late in the series). This year, FSU met Miami early on, and when Miami had a chance to tie the game with a field goal, it was Miami that faltered, missing a field goal (they had missed earlier in the game too).
In fact, Florida, Florida State, and Miami, throughout the 90s were often in contention for the national championships. Florida State would play both Florida and Miami, often beating Florida while losing to Miami. Florida did not usually pay Miami, however.
Steve Spurrier was an innovative coach, at least for the SEC (Southeastern Conference). When Steve first joined the SEC, it was primarily a run-oriented league. When Florida became successful with its "Fun and Gun" attack, a pass-oriented style of play that changed the way SEC teams played football. While none of the teams in the SEC would pass nearly as much as Florida, being able to throw the ball effectively became important, and it was due to Spurrier, more than anyone else.
His 2001 team, which he had hoped would vie for a national championship, especially with hotshot quarterback, Rex Grossman. Spurrier felt he had his best team in a while. But again, the national championship eluded Spurrier when Auburn beat Florida on a last minute field goal. Even so, Spurrier spanked Maryland, demolishing them, 56-23. With the warm weather and the forth most populous state in the nation, Florida had incredible talent, often boasting players that were as qualified to run track as they were to play football. This speed and the precision of the Fun n Gun attack was too much for Maryland.
Spurrier was a coach whose mouth often got him into trouble. Spurrier, the son of a minister, was highly competitive. He had been something of an unathletic quarterback playing at Science Hill High School in Tennessee, languoring, until a professional coach came to visit, and suggested a pro-style offense. Spurrier was not recruited by Tennessee, and resented it. Instead, he was picked by Florida, and eventually won the Heisman trophy, the award for the best player in the nation. This decision was perhaps sealed when Florida, needing a field goal, to win a crucial game, was suddenly face with a dilemma. The field goal was outside the rancge of the kicker. Spurrier, who had done kicking in high school as well as quarterbacking, volunteered to kick the ball, saying he could make it. And he did.
Spurrier would then become the first coach to win the Heisman and coach a Heisman winner when Danny Wuerffel won the Heisman. Despite his success with quarterbacks, nomne of his quaterbacks were ever successful in the NFL. They were serviceable backups, but no stars, certainly none close to the likes of Tennessee's Peyton Manning, who last year broke the record for most touchdowns in a season.
After that bowl win over Maryland, Spurrier would make a surprise announcement and leave Florida to coach the Washington Redskins for the unheard amount of five million dollars a year. He would try his fun and gun style in the pros. Routinely, local sports commentators would make fun of Spurrier's Tennessee accent. Spurrier, who called himself the "head ball coach" would suggest "pitching and catching" the ball, using baseball terminology in football. He was ridiculed for his inability to remember names on the defense.
Ultimately, Spurrier was really a quarterback's coach that became head coach. He only cared about the quarterback and the wide receivers. Despite having Steven Davis, a top notch running back, he preferred to throw the ball, early and often. Only when that did not succeed did he try running the ball more. In fact, the few wins he had were often when he played conservatively, In the end, Spurrier decided he couldn't win in the NFL, at least, not the way he wanted, and left. He'd stay out of coaching a year until he came back to coach the South Carolina Gamecocks, back in college football.
Friedgen wanted to show that Maryland's first year success was no fluke. Friedgen made two more bowls with Scott McBrien, helming the team. McBrien, a Maryland native, had transferred from West Virginia, when he wasn't given much playing time. The first year with McBrien as quaterback, Friedgen faced perennial powerhouse Tennessee, and clocked them, 30-3.
If Florida was a favorite to win the national championships most years, Tennessee was usually ranked right around 5 to 10. The SEC was arguably the class of the powerhouse conferences in college football. Tennessee would play Florida each year, and used to have to deal with Alabama under Coach Bear Bryant. When he stopped coaching, Tennessee would learn to beat Alabama on a regular basis, but Florida would have its number. Tennessee usually played Florida early in the season, lose, and try to find someway to contend for the SEC championship.
Tennessee finally put it together in 1998, the year after Peyton Manning had left for the pros. Under Tee Martin, Tennessee went 13-0 and won the national championships. As with many national champions, Tennessee had a fair bit of luck winning the title. They had a game lost, when the opposing quarterback, needing to take the ball back and essentially kneel it, tripped, leading to a turnover and a Tennessee score and win. Then, facing perennial powerhouse Florida State for the national championship, the main FSU quarterback was injured, and they had to put an inexperienced quarterback. It was an awful, awful game, with mistakes a plenty.
Friedgen would follow up the Peach Bowl win over Tennessee in 2002 with a 41-7 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl. Maryland plays West Virginia every year, even though Maryland is in the ACC and West Virginia is in the Big East. The year Friedgen became head coach, Rich Rodriguez, former West Virginia alum, also came back to coach his alma mater. Friedgen would demolish WVU the first three years, and do so a second time with the Gator Bowl win.
Somewhat disturbingly, each year, Friedgen's teams would do a little worse. Admittedly, a 10-2 season is hard to match. It would finally end up disastously last year, when Friedgen lost for the first time to West Virginia, then also had losses to Georgia Tech, NC State, Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech. Despite the win over Florida State, six losses in eleven games was too much.
Entering this season, Friedgen now has something to prove. Last year's team had problems generating offense. With the title as offensive wizard, Friedgen was not living up to that name. This year, Maryland opened its season playing Navy. Navy had been perennial losers for many years. They had a schedule that was comparable to Notre Dame (who they played yearly, and lost to regularly). They were noted for being scrappers, but lacked the kind of talent to win.
With a lighter schedule and a new coach, Navy went on a 10-2 tear last year and won a bowl game. Maryland, meanwhile, sat home. Maryland hadn't played Navy since Friedgen was a player on the team some forty years ago. They are now renewing a rivalry. In fact, Navy held a 14-3 lead before succumbing 23-20, which required a fourth and 8 play to win.
This week, Maryland would play Clemson. The first three years, Friedgen owned Clemson. They won the first three meetings. Tommy Bowden, son of FSU's Bobby Bowden, has coached Clemson the last few years. He's faced fire for several years, especially in his inability to beat Friedgen. Each year, he'd win just enough to keep his job.
Clemson beat a ranked Texas A&M team to open its season, by one point. They would come to Maryland to try to beat them a second time in a row.
If anything, football is more a game of mistakes than a game of good plays. Each team must typically get eighty yards of offense to go from their own twenty yard line to the opponents endzone. Penalties can keep drives alive. Mistakes can cut this eighty yards down to twenty. Maryland opened up with a huge gaffe. With Clemson about to turn the ball over on forth down, Maryland was called for a personal foul, which is basically hitting a player when a play is over. This penalty kept the ball in Clemson's hands and they would turn it into a score.
Maryland would get a field goal, and then work its way to a 24-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. On a key defensive series, Maryland, just up 3 points, 24-21, simply had to hold Clemson, forcing a forth down. Yet, Clemson rumbled to a touchdown, with a key 3rd and 7 play, that they ran, instead of throwing. That put Clemson up 28-24, with three minutes to play. Maryland would have to make the length of the field, with Sam Hollenbach at the helm for the first time, after Joel Statham's disastrous quarterbacking last year.
Hollenbach, while inexperienced, still played reasonably well. Maryland didn't run the ball particularly well, especially up the middle, but kept running the play anyway. They threw the ball fairly well, and generated offense. However, as I said, football comes down to mistakes. Key calls on personal fouls hurt Maryland, but just as key was the inability to score within ten yards of the endzone. Finally, the defense had a difficult time stopping Clemson. Clemson opened up with a long, clock-eating drive that took ten minutes to score.
Even so, Maryland just lost. If they can cut down on silly errors, and get the defense on track, they should be able to win a few games this year, certainly more than last year. If they spiral down, then they're going to be in trouble. The West Virginia game should be key. The Big East was decimated when its top two teams, Miami and Virginia Tech, both left the Big East to join the ACC. This year, Boston College was added to the ACC from the Big East, so that the ACC would have 12 teams, and therefore have enough teams to hold a conference championship, which would yield more money for the ACC.
Before these defections, Florida State was the ACC powerhouse, winning the ACC nearly every year, often by lopsided scores. With Miami and Virginia Tech added to the schedule, that's at least one more loss for everyone else. With twelve teams, there's no way every team can play every other team. With a typical 11 game schedule, and at least two games played out of conference, the ACC is divided into two six team groups: the Atlantic division and the Coastal division (the A and C of ACC).
Florida State and Miami are put on opposite divisions, so that each division only has to face one of those two powerhouses. However, Virginia Tech also falls in one of the divisions, so that division can typically pencil in two losses. Virginia Tech is in the same division as Miami, which is on the opposite division as Maryland. That way, Virginia Tech still gets to play Miami each year, as it did when it played in the Big East.
Each team plays every other team in its division. Maryland plays Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, and Georgia Tech. From the other division, it plays Wake Forest, North Carolina, and NC State. that is, it plays half the teams on the other division, thus, they play all teams every two years (three teams in the other division one year, then the other three the following year).
It's still too early to tell what's going to happen. I think Maryland's chances are promising, but with a tougher ACC, it may be a challenge to make a bowl game. Right now, I don't think Maryland is recruiting good quarterbacks, at least, at the level that Friedgen did when he was offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. Even so, Maryland's bowl record prior to him was non-existent. Throughout the 90s, Maryland went to no bowl games. The last time they consistently went to bowl games was when Bobby Ross coached Maryland, and Ralph Friedgen was the offensive coordinator. Ross left after controversy and became head coach of Georgia Tech, where Friedgen went.
The game against West Virginia is key. They were able to contend for the Big East title last year, after finally beating Maryland. Can Friedgen work his magic again? This may tell as much about Friedgen's season as anything else.
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