College football has long been an afterthought in Maryland. At best, it's been a pleasant Saturday interlude between the buildup during the week and the battles that usually take place the next day for the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins.
At worst, it's been an occasional blip on the national consciousness.
Things won't change dramatically because two of the state's Division I football teams — Maryland and Towson — are both unbeaten and nationally ranked in their respective subdivisions.
But going into the second month of the season, the coinciding success of Maryland (4-0) and Towson (5-0) is not only rare — it marks the first time since 1986 that both programs started at least 3-0 — it is a sign their coaches view as a measuring stick for the talent within the state.
"The better we all do, the better the state looks. There's no other way to describe it," said fifth-year Towson coach Rob Ambrose, who has more than half of his team's roster made up of players from Maryland. "People believe Florida is a great football state. It's not because of the recruits that come out of Florida, it's because Florida State and Florida have won national championships.
"The prestige of any state these days is severely wrapped in their athletic teams, in particular football. Michigan and Stanford are two of the greatest academic institutions in the history of history. If you ask anybody in the country about those schools, the first thing that comes to mind is football. When Maryland's winning and Towson's winning, the state of Maryland looks pretty darn good."
Ranked third by The Sports Network in the Football Championship Subdivision, the Tigers play host to New Hampshire at noon Saturday at Johnny Unitas Stadium. A little more than 900 miles south, the Terps will take their No. 25 ranking in the Associated Press poll of Football Bowl Subdivision teams into Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee to play No. 8 Florida State.
While the Tigers have been nationally ranked consistently since late in the 2011 season, when Ambrose turned a 1-10 team into playoff-bound Colonial Athletic Association champions for the first time since leaving Division II, the Terps have not been ranked during the season since 2008. It is the first 4-0 start for Maryland since the 2001 team won its first six games. Towson's last 5-0 start was in 1986.
Asked if he thought the turnaround would have come this dramatically after Terps won a total of six games his first two years, Edsall said, "What you can control is how well you prepare and what you put into it and then it's for other people to take notice of what you've done. Through all their hard work and their preparation, through what they accomplished in the first four games, people have taken notice.
"This week presents a different challenge from what those other games presented. If we do the things that we're capable of doing, then we're going to give ourselves the opportunity to win. Again, what I've always envisioned is just having a team that would work hard each and every day, work to improve from game to game to get better, hopefully we can continue to do that."
Edsall acknowledged that the perception of his program has changed, based on what he heard as he went out recruiting during a recent week off after Maryland's 37-0 victory over West Virginia at M&T Bank Stadium on Sept. 21.
Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com said that Maryland's fast start has a more immediate impact on the program's image than it does on the state's reputation for turning out elite college players. Farrell said that the state long known for its basketball talent started to change when wide receiver Derrick Williams was considered one of the top players in the state. He wound up choosing Penn State over Maryland, a school where his father Dwight worked as an assistant athletic director.
"For Maryland, this is an important year for them to start keeping some of those top kids at home," Farrell said. "A victory over Florida State would certainly propel them. In the recruiting world, the state of Maryland has been looked at as a state that could be raided. That's something that Maryland is trying to change."
Farrell said Edsall can't limit his recruiting to in-state talent in order to be successful.
"It's not a deep enough state, honestly, at any position to win a national championship or even an ACC championship," Farrell said. "There's talent there, but if you load up your roster with 90 percent in-state kids, you're not going to win an ACC title, you're not going to go to a BCS bowl game. It's important to start there and make sure you don't lose those kids."
From a fan's perspective, the perception surrounding Maryland and Edsall has started to change.
Athletic director Kevin Anderson, who was widely criticized for firing Ralph Friedgen and hiring Edsall from Connecticut, said he isn't surprised that the fan support has been slow to grow considering Maryland's location. Anderson sees similarities to when he worked at Stanford and California.
"It's really all contingent on how well you do," Anderson said. "The Bay Area is a very competitive market just like we have here. You have to be good and you have to compete, and as long as you're winning, there's support there and people will come out. If you're not winning and you don't have the kind of program that's a thread in the community, it makes it very difficult."
Maryland junior linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, who grew up in Baltimore and transferred from a Division II school in Pennsylvania last year, can sense a change when he talks to his friends from home and walks around campus.
"I've got a lot of calls, especially from people back home, they're saying, 'I see you guys are doing a good job and are ranked right now," Cudjoe-Virgil said. "I feel like a lot of pride is coming out of the school right now. People come me and say,' You're on the football team, good job.' It's a great environment to know that we have the support of the school behind us."
Like most college football coaches, Ambrose doesn't get out much on campus during the season. But based on what happened at Towson's only previous home game this season, there is a similar boost of interest in the suburbs of Baltimore.
"We are now making adjustments in the stadium because we had some many students come to the game, we didn't know where to put them," Ambrose said with a laugh. "I would say that that the attitude on campus has gone from being basically disinterested and apathetic to being very interested and extremely overzealous."
Ambrose saw his team's turnaround start in 2010, when is team played a number of close games, but the former Towson player says he wasn't sure the Tigers could move up in the rankings as quickly and dramatically as they have the past few years.
"I knew the opportunities were here if the administrative support was here — that if it would be continual support, there's no reason we couldn't be a Top 25 team week in and week out and we could have conversations about competing for a national championship," Ambrose said.
"As good as we're doing, there's still a lot of pieces missing. I give the staff and these kids a lot of credit for where we are now. There's still a lot of things to be done for us to be a continual contender for a national championship, but we're on that road."
Edsall, who had Ambrose as his offensive coordinator at Connecticut, is similarly cautious about his team's hot start.
"We're making progress," he said Tuesday. "We're nowhere near where we need to be or where I want to be. That's what everybody's got to understand. The season isn't over after four weeks. We've got so much more that we need to accomplish and that we want to build in terms of getting the kind of depth that we need to have to be consistently good, week in, week out, year in year out. We're going in the right direction.
"We've got to continue to stay grounded. We've got to continue to stay humble, to stay hungry. If we do that, we have a chance to continue to move forward and get better. But if we put the cart before the horse, and start thinking we shouldn't be thinking about, we're not going to get where we want to go. Nothing's been accomplished yet. The stakes get higher with each game we win."
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