Let's recognize this day for what it is: a chance for Maryland's football team to parlay its surprising September success into a major step forward. There won't be many better opportunities.
The Terps already have made notable progress in winning their first two games, although even the players recognize the movement as part illusion. Still, when you haven't had a winning season in five years, you gladly bank anything other than another loss. And now, as a result, they have a chance to cause a real stir. The issue is whether they are up to the challenge.
Certainly, the circumstances are favorable. The Terps are feeling as good about themselves as they have at any time in the past few years. They're catching Clemson today in a moment of transition, more vulnerable than usual. They're playing at Memorial Stadium, where big crowds and a lively atmosphere have prompted some of their best performances.
This is the moment for which the players and coach Joe Krivak have waited. It isn't a make-or-break game; even if they lose, the Terps still are ahead of 1990 projections. (Beating West Virginia on the road took care of that.) But if they win, they can start talking about rankings, bowls and, well, just having a good name for the first time in a while.
"For us to have a great season, this is the game right here," senior linebacker Scott Whittier said.
As recently as two weeks ago, before the Terps beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia, it seemed ludicrous to suggest they could beat Clemson. It may still seem ludicrous by late this afternoon. Clemson, even below top form, is a sprinter-speed handful. And, not to spoil the fun, the Terps haven't exactly beaten two Notre Dames.
"We've beaten two average teams," Whittier said. "West Virginia was ranked, but the truth is they aren't as good as they've been. And we won both games with big plays at the end. Without those, we'd be 0-1-1."
But they got the big plays, long pass plays from Scott Zolak to Gene Thomas, and on such moments can seasons turn. The Terps were unsure of themselves before playing Virgina Tech, but they're starting to believe. "Morale is up," Whittier said. "The campus is excited. People are talking about a big season. It gets you going."
That kind of emotional momentum, in this emotional sport, can make a team better, push it ahead of where it belongs. And the Terps do appear to have a solid defense and competent offense on which to rely. Things could be a lot worse.
Of course, if there weren't questions about Clemson, even an uplifted Maryland would be in trouble. The Tigers are strong every year, and although they did lose to Virginia last week, they still resemble their usual selves, with a terrific defense and talented, if young, nucleus on offense. They're a bowl team. They're better than Maryland.
Yet there are reasons to suspect they're vulnerable. The team almost mutinied when coach Danny Ford was forced to resign after last season, and although his replacement, Ken Hatfield, is a successful coach, there has been fallout from Ford's departure. One assistant coach told Sports Illustrated, "It's been a slow transition."
It showed in the 20-7 loss to Virginia. "From the game film, it looks like they beat themselves," Whittier said. "They have a strong offensive front, but their quarterback, running backs and wide receivers are inexperienced. They made mistakes [against Virginia]. They ran into each other in the backfield, and I've never seen a Clemson team do that."
It didn't help that they were playing on the road, before a jacked-up Virginia crowd thrilled at this new idea of cheering for a winning team. The Terps are hoping for a similar advantage today, although the game is not a sellout. They have twice played Penn State tough at Memorial Stadium, almost beaten Miami, tied a 15th-ranked Clemson.
"We play over our heads there," Whittier said. "Sometimes at College Park we don't get the kind of support that big-time teams get. In Baltimore, you look up to the top of the stadium and all you see are people. Sixty-five thousand people. We love it."
The pieces do fit together. The stadium. The timing. The question is whether the Terps are up to this challenge, whether this 2-0 start is meaningful or just fun. Remember, this was a team picked in preseason to go nowhere, a team without great speed or much blue-chip talent. Clemson has smoked them the past few years. Today should be different, a better game -- but how much better?
"We have them in the best situation we could possibly have them," Whittier said, "but we're still going to have to play a flawless game to win."