COLLEGE PARK -- Ron Vanderlinden must feel a little like he is sitting on top of the world these days.
The Maryland football team is off to a 5-2 start, is most likely just two wins away from a bowl bid and has reached the top of the nation's NCAA Division I rankings in turnover margin and kickoff returns.
The Terps have a plus-16 turnover margin or an average of 2.29 a game, and they lead the country with an average of 32.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns.
The third-year coach is also savoring the high national rankings of his two junior All-America candidates, running back LaMont Jordan and cornerback Lewis Sanders.
Jordan is fourth in the country in scoring with 12.0 points a game, ninth in rushing with 122.1 yards a game, and 14th in all-purpose yards with 149.6 a game.
Sanders is second in the nation in individual kickoff returns with an average of 33.9 yards on nine returns and he is third in interceptions with six in seven games.
"We were the most ready to play against North Carolina Saturday that we've been in my 2 1/2 years here," Vanderlinden said of a 45-7 rout. "It was a very big game for me as CEO of this program. If we had not won that game, it would have made a statement that maybe nothing has really changed in the ACC."
The win over North Carolina was the first major step taken by Vanderlinden and the Terps toward the upper echelon of the ACC. Granted, North Carolina is down this season with a 1-6 record but the Tar Heels have been to seven straight bowls and were 11-1 just two seasons ago.
For Vanderlinden, the rise in 1999 is a long way from those dark and dreary August days in 1997 when he first assembled the Terps for practice.
"I'll never forget that one night two years ago when we hardly could get through two-a-days," Vanderlinden said. "Our guys just weren't in good condition. It looked like a MASH unit. We had ambulances there. We had four players laying on the ground moaning and groaning. We had guys going down with heat exhaustion. I had never seen anything like it."
Where are all the fans?
The Terps are starting to beat more teams on their schedule but the crowds at Byrd Stadium are getting smaller.
Only 27,077, a season low for four home games, were on hand to watch the romp over North Carolina. That is a big drop-off from a crowd of 36,376 that witnessed the home opener against Western Carolina on Sept. 11.
Some of the players have excused the fans for not showing up in larger numbers for the Tar Heels, saying the weather was colder than in September and the game was on television.
But Sanders had trouble understanding the small crowd.
"It's disappointing," he said. "We look for the fans to come out and support us. They can't say they're waiting to see if we're for real because we had proven ourselves twice on TV before Saturday. I guess they're waiting around for the basketball season. But we're going to keep on playing whether they come or not."
Sanders said the student interest around campus in the football team "is still the same" as it was when the team was losing.
The Maryland fans have two more chances at home to see the improved team. The Terps play Duke at 1 p.m. on Saturday and then close out the season Nov. 20 against Virginia.
Jackson decision due
A decision on junior safety Tony Jackson's playing status for the rest of this season will be made next week.
Jackson (broken ankle) will miss his seventh straight game against Duke but is starting to go through light workouts that could lead to him playing at North Carolina State on Nov. 6.
However, Jackson (Wilde Lake) could receive a medical hardship and be redshirted if he does not play anymore this year, leaving him with two years of eligibility. He has played in just one half against Temple on Sept. 2.
Meanwhile, sophomore linebacker Monte Graves (St. Mary's) will return to action this week after missing the North Carolina game with a left thumb injury.