During football season in College Park, MD, it always rains. A lot. It’s an autumnal rite of passage for Terps fans and a dreary reminder of Maryland’s pecking order in the college football world. If you can’t handle the rain, then you certainly won’t be able to stomach the game.
In the fall of 2009, the only sunny home game was an early season matchup against the Clemson Tigers. It was a classic revenge game for the Tigers, whom Maryland had beaten in Death Valley the year prior. The loss permanently kicked Clemson from the Top 25 and completely snuffed out any preseason hype it had accumulated as ACC favorites or dark horse national title contenders, a familiar theme for the Tigers in the recent years.
It was a game Clemson should have easily won with C.J. Spiller in the backfield and a young Da’Quan Bowers on the defensive line, both ready to feast on a Maryland team well on its way to the dregs of college football.
Instead, Clemson lost the game in the way many Clemson teams have against lesser teams. It wasn’t a Clemsoning, it was just a bad loss. The Tigers lost the turnover battle, went 4-for-16 on third downs and shanked a game-tying field goal in the waning minutes.
Knowing this could be the last win of the season, my friends and I hung out down by the field after the game, soaking in the rare combination of a victorious and sunny Saturday, before security eventually came and escorted us out.
From there, these teams went in drastically different directions. Maryland went winless for the remainder of the season Clemson would go on to win the Atlantic Division and falter in the ACC Championship game.
This Saturday, these two teams will again square off in College Park. The situations aren’t completely identical, but they’re similar, and, moreover, it’s a game between two teams vying for respect on the national level. Whether trying to breakout from the bland mid-tier of college football or smash the ceiling to permanently join the game’s elite, earning respect is a struggle.
For Maryland, the ongoing climb to relevancy literally started at the bottom with that 2-10 season four years ago. Following that disastrous campaign, it was fair to ask whether head coach Ralph Friedgen would be back snarling on the sidelines in 2010. He did return, but not without more controversy embroiling the program. Friedgen was eventually given the boot after finishing 9-4 and winning his second ACC coach of the year award. Offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting James Franklin was also sent packing and quickly landed at Vanderbilt.
New athletic director Kevin Anderson was looking to make a big move to revitalize the program and, most importantly, have people take Maryland seriously.
The source of success for many traditional powers is owning the local, fertile recruiting ground. The Buckeyes hold court in the Ohio, Texas IS Texas, the Gators and Seminoles are never short on Florida talent, and so on. For the Terps, it’s the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia— the “DMV”, as it’s known— which is all in the backyard of College Park and never short on top-level talent. Maryland needed to take back its territory.
The other ingredient Maryland needed was money from a big name booster. It’s always about money. In this case, Under Armour money, from CEO and Maryland alum Kevin Plank. It needed that money to, presumably, court a head coach capable of exploiting any built-in advantages.
Fans wanted Mike Leach. It made too much sense. But in the end, it was too exciting for Maryland. Love for Leach was squashed due to his ongoing legal dispute with ESPN, an ACC business partner. The head-scratching consolation prize, instead, was Connecticut’s Randy Edsall.
The fan base was horrified. It was a joke, right? Plank was committed to supporting the program in a Phil Knight-Oregon-esque fashion, and Edsall, a supremely vanilla option, was the final answer?
Fine. The positive spin was that Edsall seemed like a likeable guy. Plus, he did oversee UConn’s rise from the FCS level all the way up to a BCS bowl. What could he do with a bigger budget and a higher level of play? This could work. The fans were ready for it to work, and even bought into flashy new uniforms, which signalled a new renewed commitment from Under Armour to the school.
When the infamous Maryland Pride uniforms were unveiled on national television against Miami to kick off the 2011 season, it truly felt like the barometer was moving in a positive direction. That moment was fleeting and hasn’t returned since. What ensued was another fiasco of a 2-10 season, resulting in the departure of more than 20 players from the program, including quarterback Danny O’Brien, the former ACC Rookie of the Year.
The 2012 season was a historic disaster in its own right, with all four of the quarterbacks on the roster suffering season ending injuries, leaving the team to start freshman linebacker, Shawn Petty, at quarterback.
The special mixture of bad luck and unfortunate circumstances that restrains the Terps from being a consistent fringe Top-25 team always seems to linger, no matter how hard they fight it.
It was during the 2011 season that Clemson returned to College Park, this time as the No. 8 in the country after starting unranked. The Tigers were 6-0 and hung at least 35 points on five of their opponents, the outlier being a 23-3 win on the road over No. 11 Virginia Tech, the eventual Coastal Division champ. In addition to the Hokies, their resume included wins over ranked Auburn and Florida State teams. They had momentum.
It was supposed to be a blood bath in Byrd Stadium. That is, until Clemson found itself in a familiar position, on the ropes in the third quarter, down 35-17. A Clemsoning was on the horizon until late, when the Tigers found their feet and Maryland went full collapse. The Tigers would go onto win 56-45 and both teams continued down their respective paths. Clemson was still in the hunt for an ACC title and getting love as a darkhorse in the BCS conversation, while Maryland was doing anything it could, unsuccessfully, to avoid laughingstock status.
For the Tigers, the game was merely foreshadowing. Clemson has long been the king of knocking on the door, blowing its chances in games it should win handily. The dreams of competing for a national title—of being one of the “big boys”—were dashed when the Tigers lost three of their last four, including two games against North Carolina State and Georgia Tech in which it looked like they missed the team bus.
Still, Clemson marched on to its first appearance in a BCS game after throttling Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. It was a watershed moment for the program and especially for Dabo Swinney, who replaced Tommy Bowden during the 2008 season in an attempt to exercise the demons of the program’s perplexing shortcomings.
It doesn’t make sense why the Tigers can’t crack the upper echelon of college football. Clemson always has talent. Living in an SEC neighborhood gives them to access the one of finest recruiting grounds in the country and they always capitalize. Clemson also boasts a passionate and supportive fan base, an athletic department that pegs the football team as priority No. 1 and one of the finest home field atmospheres in the country. All quality ingredients needed for sustaining a successful program.
But Clemson can never seem to get out of its own way. We don’t need to get into the details on “Clemsoning.” It’s been well-documented. That’s reality if you’re a Clemson fan. And that’s why most corners of the college football world refuse to take the Tigers seriously
The 2012 Orange Bowl was supposed to be different. Clemson had a date with destiny and a Mountaineer team that played close games against a mediocre-to-bad (Big East) squads. It was the perfect start to a 2012 title campaign. The Tigers were finally about to crash the BCS cocktail party.
And then… 70-33 happened. The Tigers were right back where they started.
Clemson was mocked endlessly during the offseason. Fraudulent, again!, said the Internet.
Much to the Tigers’ credit, in 2012, they decided to reload and try again. Like an elite team. They won 11 games by an average of 20 points, looking dominant on offense throughout much of the season. Unfortunately, Clemson’s best team in recent memory ran into a top-shelf Florida State team (in its own division) and very good South Carolina team. An 11-2 record wasn’t exactly a black eye. But the all-you-could-eat cheese fries and Bloomin’ Onion at the Outback Bowl were hardly the prize the Tigers had sought. No BCS bowl. No grandeur. No glory.
On Saturday, both teams will still find themselves vying for those proverbial moments in the sun.
After starting 4-0, the Terps are 1-2 in their last three games, getting thumped by Florida State and Wake Forest, and needing Virginia to miss a very late field goal to survive. Bowl eligibility is top priority, but getting that sixth win could be a struggle with how things have looked in the past few weeks.
In addition to looking generally unprepared, Maryland is enduring another insane injury situation. They’ve lost two of the best receivers in the conference, as well as their top two cornerbacks, and suffered a depletion of the linebacking corps. That’s not even counting the one-year suspension of top running back Wes Brown following a run in with the law during the summer.
Maybe this isn’t the time for Maryland. Maybe they need one more year of seasoning. Perhaps next year’s move to the Big Ten—another, gigantic move the Terps made in the hopes of being taken seriously—will be just what the Terps need. Maybe, next season, they’ll be deep enough and smart enough to win football games that people are watching. Or maybe not.
Clemson fell victim, once again, to Florida State, the only ACC team with year-to-year potential higher than its own. Getting blown out at home by a freshman quarterback—albeit “The Wonderful Monster” Jameis Winston—was more than a little embarrassing. After all, this was supposed to be the year. Tajh Boyd. Sammy Watkins. Natty or bust.
And so it continues for these teams. Scraping, gnashing, clawing. Doing anything they can to be more relevant. To be in the national conversation. To stay in the public’s collective hive mind. Neither may ever get there, but if they ever do, it’ll be quite a story.