COLLEGE PARK -- Three years ago, one computer program rated Maryland's football schedule the toughest in the nation.
Times -- and tastes -- change. The Terps have maintained their home-and-home relationship with border rival West Virginia, but their other two nonconference dates have been softened considerably.
Northern Illinois is an independent as it moves from the Big West Conference to the Mid-American, two of the four Division I-A conferences that are not part of the Bowl Alliance.
Alabama-Birmingham? The Terps have helmets that are older than the Blazers' program, which is in its sixth year and its first in I-A.
The nonconference schedule may not be any more strenuous next year, when Maryland is scheduled to play Temple, often the cellar dweller in the Big East, and Ohio University, another member of the Mid-American Conference.
Maryland annually plays the eight other members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and in lining up nonconference games it has weighed some conflicting goals.
Coach Mark Duffner's priority is winning games. Athletic director Debbie Yow is all for that, but paying off a $5.7 million deficit in her department is a major concern, and bringing some sure wins into Byrd Stadium may not be the best way to improve the cash flow.
The nonconference schedule contributed to Maryland's having only two winning seasons since 1985, one being last year's 6-5 record. "Adjustments had to be made," Duffner said. They began when Andy Geiger was AD and Yow continued the process when she arrived two years ago.
"Coach Duffner came to me when I got here," Yow said, "and said, 'I'm building a team. As part of doing that, we need to build our confidence. We need a couple of wins before we hit the conference schedule.'
"It won't always be that way," Yow continued. "The day's going to come when the league [the ACC] will need us to play tougher nonconference opponents. The league is all for matching up TV games. There's not a lot of interest from ABC in us playing Northern Illinois."
Upgrading is all a matter of timing. Coming off seven straight bowl seasons, N.C. State added Alabama and Baylor last year. It lost both games, and plummeted to 3-8.
Penn State offered Yow a two-for-one deal -- two games at Beaver Stadium in exchange for one at Byrd -- but she declined. She wants Maryland to play Navy, but the Mids have no interest in renewing a rivalry between the state's only major-college teams.
Beyond acknowledging that Maryland will continue to play West Virginia on an annual basis, Yow declined to discuss specific future nonconference opponents, but officials at Temple and Ohio U. said they have contracts.
Maryland will begin a home-and-home series with Temple in 1997, playing in Philadelphia next Sept. 27 and at Byrd Stadium in 1998. Temple plays its home games at Veterans Stadium, but if that is not available it moves to Franklin Field. Ohio U. is scheduled to play at Byrd Stadium on Sept. 6, 1997.
Those agreements will allow Maryland to play six home games each of the next two years, something it hasn't done at Byrd Stadium since 1992.
Maryland could have played six home games this year, but Yow moved the Florida State game to Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami in exchange for a $1 million contract. According to Yow, the game will net Maryland, at the least, $400,000 more than it would clear if the game were played at Byrd Stadium.
The five remaining home games do not include a single team that went to a bowl game last year. Unhappy alumni said that the Florida State deal would cost Maryland over the course of the season, in the form of fewer season-ticket holders, but sales have surpassed last year's total of 16,381.
"The schedule is still an issue to a lot of fans," said R. D. Helt, associate athletic director for marketing and promotions. "I try to remind them that Northern Illinois is playing at Penn State this year, and Alabama-Birmingham will be at Auburn."
Yow said the selling of the Florida State game to the organizers of the Carquest Bowl, who in turn will market it as the Restore Automotive Football Classic, is a move she doesn't want to take again.
"It's a one-time arrangement," Yow said, "and it's going to allow us to balance our budget for the third straight year."
Yow will meet this fall with John Moag, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, about the plausibility of Maryland's moving a home game to Baltimore's NFL stadium, which is scheduled for completion in 1998.
"I want to talk to him, to see what it would take, financially, for us to take a game to Baltimore," said Yow, who ideally would like to play a stronger nonconference opponent here. "When I made reference to the schedule getting stronger, that's a possibility."
Until it prospers from the larger gate at the city's new stadium, however, Maryland will fight the loss of fans and money to the NFL.
"In our environment, with pro teams surrounding us, we have to find our niche," Yow said. "It [the Ravens] has hit us. Actually, it's like adding two new franchises to the area, since Baltimore's getting a new stadium with an increased capacity, and the Redskins are getting a new facility. Between the new seats at the two new stadiums, that's like a third [NFL] franchise in the region."
Maryland's nonconference games for the next three seasons:
1996 .. .. .. .. .. .. 1997 .. .. .. .. .. 1998
N. Illinois . .. .. .. W. Virginia . .. .. Temple
Ala.-Birmingham ... .. Ohio U. .. .. .. .. at W. Virginia
At W. Virginia . .. .. at Temple
Pub Date: 8/22/96