Shell Game: Why Maryland Football Matters

“Shell Game” is season-long a chronicle of Maryland football’s recovery from its disastrous 2011 campaign. The University of Maryland athletic department chose to deny our request for access. It was probably a wise move.

“Crabcakes and football, that’s what Maryland does!” – Ancient bro proverb

In all-time college football wins and losses table, Maryland ranks 62nd. In other words, if this were international soccer, Maryland would be Haiti. So why follow Maryland football? I firmly believe that college football is the greatest American contribution to sports. And that’s kind of nuts, because as we all know, college sports is one of the dirtiest modern enterprises operating today, and college football is at the summit of dirt mountain. Still, I’m a sucker for the splendor.

But splendor has been in short supply this last decade at College Park. The early years of the Ralph Friedgen era were three of the best in school history. 2001-2003 put Maryland back on the map after fifteen years of relative anonymity. During that span, I was in college five hundred miles away, while all my friends were burning couches and challenging police horses to fistfights as Maryland took both college football and college hoops by the nads. The Ravens had just won the Super Bowl, and my high school Alma mater took home a Maryland state title (at Byrd Stadium, no less). For a while there, it did seem that football was indeed, what Maryland did. Finally, the Terps felt like a part of that. It is not impossible it will feel like that again.

My college was smaller and had a great basketball program, but the football team had been “undefeated” (i.e. defunct) since 1972. Even though I had technically attended Maryland football games as a kid, it wasn’t until 2001 when I truly became a fan. On fall weekends home, I would join my friends in the big-school traditions of underage consumption and sitting in the student section. I even got to storm the field after a come-from-behind win over Philip Rivers and no. 14 NC State. For me, college football started to matter at a pivotal time: college. In a region where collegiate football allegiances are not exactly ingrained like in the southeast, the most formative time to fall in love with college football is when you’re peers with the guys on the field. Without familial or localized pressure, a lot of kids I grew up with just shrugged and watch Notre Dame. Unless Maryland mattered.

Make no mistake about it; Maryland is not a marquee football program. However, it has a surprising amount going for it, especially for a team that won two games last season. Unlike Boise State, who had to, and is still clawing its way to a competitive conference, Maryland is already positioned in a spot where achievement is noticed. The ACC may not be the powerhouse it imagined itself during the previous round of expansion, adding Boston College and Miami, but it’s in better shape than the Big East. With a playoff system assured for 2014 and possible expansion in the future, Maryland won their part of the reshuffling game by simply staying put. Winning the ACC, a feat that seems more achievable than in any other major conference, puts a team in the discussion to be part of said playoff. If the predictions of a future where four superconferences battle for supremacy, Maryland is already likely in one of the four with Syracuse and Pitt joining the league next season.

The area is not exactly the fertile crescent of recruiting, but it produces good enough players to fill out starting lineups across the country. Grabbing even a slightly larger share of those players would put the school in a position to even the playing field and book a few tougher non-conference games. The partnership the team has with Under Armour is almost unparalleled in college football. That partnership is shaping an identity and a brand for the school that its on-field play has never been able to achieve. If Kevin Plank had played at Virginia Tech instead of Maryland, things would look a lot different, and arguably worse at Byrd Stadium.

Eight varsity sports were axed at Maryland this season due to funding, and football was not one of them. If for no other reason, the pressure on the “money-makers” (men’s football and basketball) is even greater when the school is scaling back everywhere else. Virtually all of the teams who will either have to fund themselves or go extinct at Maryland had better competitive seasons than the footballing Terps did in 2011. Football and basketball will probably always be the safest from elimination, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have to earn their keep. With the storied hoops program in transition, finding its identity after Gary Williams, football is going to be under a microscope even more after last season’s magnificent flame-out.

Perhaps Maryland doesn’t “need” to be a big-time program like Ohio State or USC . Thoughts of that persuasion are a long ways off, but Maryland will always be intriguing in its current situation because the potential and ambition knows little bounds. The University of Maryland is a big school in a big conference. They play the greatest American sport known to man: tackle football where anything is possible. Football is, from time to time, what Maryland does.