If there’s an unluckier team in college football than the Maryland Terrapins, I don’t know who they are.
Remember 2012, when Maryland was so devastated by injuries at the quarterback position that they pulled the redshirt off linebacker Shawn Petty and threw him to the wolves? That happened. Remember last season, when star running back Wes Brown was suspended for the entire season under suspicion of involvement with a Baltimore shooting? That happened, too. Remember how two five-star receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, BOTH broke their legs in the same game? Yep, that too.
So head coach Randy Edsall takes his Terrapins out of the ACC and into the Big Ten (a puzzling move for Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney, but that’s a subject for another column).
On paper, the Terps actually look like a decent team. There’s a lot of talent and experience (and depth, thanks to basically the entire first string missing playing time at some point the last two years). Fans are skeptical of Edsall’s potential, but he has shown progress in his three seasons as head coach, going 2-10, then 4-8, then 7-6. And while 2013 was Maryland’s best season recently, it was also incredibly erratic.
Maryland began 2013 4-0, and while their opponents weren’t great, you expect good teams to handle bad teams, which is what Maryland did, beating Florida International 43-10, Old Dominion 47-10, Connecticut 32-21, and West Virginia 37-0.
Then things went south for three games. The Terps played the role of the sacrificial lamb for eventual-national champion Florida State, getting slaughtered to the tune of 63-0. Maryland eked past dismal Virginia 27-26 and got routed by Wake Forest 34-10.
Then the roller coaster REALLY got going.
A 40-27 loss to Clemson was actually a one-score game headed into the fourth quarter. Yay, improvement! A 20-3 loss to Syracuse which saw five of six straight Terrapin drives end in turnovers. Boo, regression. A thrilling road overtime win over Virginia Tech were Maryland grabbed a 21-7 lead, held off a furious Hokie rally, and won in overtime? Yay, improvement! Blowing a 24-13 fourth quarter lead to Boston College to lose 29-26? Boo, regression. Throttling a bad NC State team 41-21? Yay, improvement! Giving up 7.7 yards per pass and losing the Military Bowl 31-20 to lowly Marshall? Boo, regression.
Average score, against Sagarin 74th or worse: Maryland 32.4, Opponent 17.4 (6-1)
Average score, against Sagarin 64th or better: Opponent 34.5, Maryland 17.2 (1-5)
On the surface, it appears that Maryland got plagued with “playing to the level of their competition” syndrome in the back half of 2013 (that damnable condition that makes a team play well against good teams and badly against bad teams). On the whole, however, this was a team that hit some tough setbacks (putting it lightly) and scraped together a 7-6 record. If the Terps can avoid the injury bug and build some consistency on offense, they may be poised for a better B1G debut than one might initially assume.
The Turtle quarterback is a fella named C.J. Brown (after a senior campaign in 2013 he’ll be a senior again this fall: the NCAA granted him an extra year of eligibility due to missing the entire 2013 season with an ACL injury). Brown is a solid dual-threat quarterback who averaged a dependable 8.0 yards per attempt in 2013, and also ran for 736 yards on 118 carries (6.2 yards per) and also 12 touchdowns. While he got sacked a little more than you’d like (dual-threat quarterbacks seem especially susceptible to this), he was still solid at turning third downs into first downs.
And if there’s any justice in the world, he’ll have his two five-star wide receiver targets (Diggs and Long) back for a whole season. In just seven appearances in 2013, each put up the types of numbers you’d expect out of a whole season’s worth of production (Diggs: 34 catches for 587 yards, Long: 32 catches for 489 yards). Factor in Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, and Amba Etta-Tawo, the underclassmen who stepped up in Diggs’ and Long’s absence, and Maryland is looking at a potent backfield. The Terps will hope to improve an offense that was fantastic at nabbing big plays, but abysmal at the short ones.
To that end, the running game needs to improve. Maryland found itself behind schedule a lot, forcing Brown into obvious pass-or-scramble situations, which are not friendly to a quarterback. Brandon Ross and Albert Reid were boom-or-bust (which means when they weren’t busting long gains they were usually going for no gain). The boasted a power success rate (converting third- or fourth-and-two or less) of just 61.7%, good for 100th in the nation, and to be fair, some of the blame falls on the offensive line for this, too. In order to move the sticks on frigid November afternoons in Ann Arbor or State College when the winds are howling and the ball is ice-cold and rock solid, the Terps will need to be able to grind out a few drives on the ground, and Brown’s scrambling ability can only take the Terps so far.
Injuries upon injuries upon injuries have resulted in a lot of depth for a stout front seven. That’s the benefit to injuries (if there is such a thing) is that it forces young players to step up and produce. The Terp front managed to hold opponents to 2.8 yards per carry or less on five occasions in 2013, and held opponents to just 3.74 on the year (roughly the top third of the NCAA) and recorded 35 sacks. Remember the aforementioned power success rate? On defense it means stuffing third- and fourth-and-two or less, and the Rutgers front seven did so 51% of the time; or, 3rd in the NCAA. Maryland returns nearly all major contributors to this effort (the glaring exception being OLB Marcus Whitfield, the only Terp linebacker to play all 13 games last year). But of those returning, look for linebacker Matt Robinson and defensive end Andre Monroe to continue wrecking offenses behind the line of scrimmage (27 combined tackles for loss and five passes deflected).
The secondary could be a liability. They were good-not-great in 2013, but of course, everyone who played against Florida State and Clemson has the numbers skewed against them, to an extent. The secondary followed the up/down nature of Maryland football in 2013, starting strong (5.2 yards per attempt in the first four games), then got bad (7.8 against the next four) then decent (6.6 in the next four), then laying an egg in the bowl game (7.7). Certain opponents you expect to come at you hard in the air (namely, Florida State, who averaged 11.1 yards per attempt), but then there are head-scratching performances against Connecticut (7.8), Boston College (8.0), and Marshall (7.7) make you wonder.
Most of the secondary returns; including safety Sean Davis, who was the team’s leading tackler, nabbed two interceptions, and broke up a few passes. Also, keep an eye on sophomore William Likely, a former freshman phenom who broke up six passes in an impressive debut. There’s talent here but it didn’t live up to its potential in 2013. Improvement is to be expected.
MARYLAND SPECIAL TEAMS
Brad Craddock was a solid placekicker who got put in some tough spots by an offense that struggled to convert third downs. He converted on 21 of 25 attempts, though (5/8 outside of 40 yards), which meant that when the offense could get close, they could usually get points. He was also dependable on PATs, hitting on 37 of 38.
Having Diggs back will help the return game, though Likely may challenge him for the role, having averaged 12.8 yards per return and even taking one in for six against Virginia Tech after Diggs got hurt. On the flipside, the Terp special teams played solid punt coverage. It’s a strong unit that doesn’t show any signs of dropoff heading into 2014.
Like Nebraska in 2011, the Big Ten saw fit to ante up the schedule for Maryland’s debut, and it’s seriously back-loaded. The Terps got off little better than Rutgers, unfortunately: while the Terps travel to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan, they host Ohio State, Iowa, and Michigan State. The Terps will get to fine-tune against a pair of cupcakes in James Madison and South Florida, and will likely be undefeated before the brutal conference slate begins.
I’m torn on this team. My heart wants to say that a deep and experienced offensive backfield come into the Big Ten and turn some heads, probably stealing a game or two from a more marquee opponent (the likeliest candidates being Michigan or Iowa, in my estimation). On the flipside, against the Big Ten’s second-toughest conference schedule I think that even if the Terps can come to play, still the best they could hope for is 7-5 or 8-4. But overall I have a good feeling about the Terps, 2014 Edition.
(Also, I’m looking forward to getting to make an “It shrinks?” “Like a frightened turtle!” reference many times this fall.)