As the Maryland Terrapins begin their 2006 season against William and Mary today at Byrd Stadium, the prevailing fan sentiment is that coach Ralph Friedgen needs to get the team back to a bowl game after consecutive 5-6 seasons.
But frankly, that's the least he should do.
Yes, the Terps' 2006 schedule includes a spate of tough games, and yes, life in general in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference will never be as easy as life in the old nine-team league was - but with all due respect, getting a team to a bowl game in 2006 is hardly the challenge of a lifetime. The NCAA has made it easy.
College sports' governing body used to try to maintain a semblance of quality control over the bowls, but it obviously gave up. Now, any entity with nonprofit status, a letter of credit and a box of ugly sports jackets can host a postseason game.
There are 32 bowls this season, as opposed to 18 a decade ago and 11 three decades ago.
It used to mean something to make a bowl game, but now, it only means you aren't among the bottom feeders of Division I-A.
The math is pretty astounding. A 32-game bowl schedule means 64 teams will qualify for the postseason. That's more than half of the 119 teams playing major college (I-A) football.
You can even go bowling without a winning record now. The NCAA has relaxed its rule forcing bowl teams to be above .500, having realized 64 teams might not qualify.
Now, a 6-6 record might get you to the International Bowl in Toronto, one of four new bowls this season, or maybe to the Armed Forces Bowl, which used to be the Fort Worth Bowl. There's also the Emerald Bowl, the Insight Bowl, the Champs Sports Bowl and the GMAC Bowl. (I'd list them all but I don't have room.)
The opportunities are so limitless that eight of the 12 teams in the new-look ACC went bowling a year ago. The Terps, who went to the Orange, Peach and Gator bowls in Friedgen's first three seasons, probably can rejoin the fun by winning just half of their 12 games. A 7-5 season would all but guarantee them a trip somewhere.
Can they do it? Their schedule certainly gives them a chance. Although it contains games against West Virginia, Florida State, Miami and Clemson (currently ranked Nos. 5, 11, 12 and 18 in the Associated Press Top 25), it also contains four likely easy home wins, starting with William and Mary and then Middle Tennessee, Florida International and Wake Forest later on.
The 4-0 head start means the Terps need to go 2-6 in their remaining games to be bowl eligible and 3-5 to all but assure themselves of a trip. Can they do it? Their homecoming game against a North Carolina State team that is supposedly down gives them a good chance to move a step closer, but no other game is easy, so there's a substantive challenge.
But remember, Friedgen doesn't need to run the table. He just needs to win a couple of the remaining games. Spring a mild upset or two, or a major one. Beat Virginia on the road. Surprise Florida State at home.
With the depth and experience this year's Terps possess, it's a plausible scenario.
The notion that Friedgen "needs" to do it is overblown. Win or lose, he is a respected, creative coach, Maryland's best since Bobby Ross. He is under contract through 2012 at about $1.5 million a year, works hard, isn't looking to climb any ladders, and as a grad, cares about the school and program. Athletic director Debbie Yow couldn't do better if she wanted to replace him, and she doesn't. It's just not an issue now or in the foreseeable future.
But having said that, a third straight losing season would leave Friedgen without most of the supportive capital he earned by starting his College Park career with three 10-win seasons. Fans and alumni get upset if you don't start generating more good memories at some point. Another bowl trip would be a good place to start.
It's a dodge to blame the 5-6 seasons strictly on the expanded ACC being tougher. Yes, it's obviously a better league, but it didn't have a team in the final AP Top 10 of 2005, and doesn't have one there now. It is still forgiving enough that, given the bowl scene's ever-lowering entrance standards, a team can collect enough wins to qualify as long as it occasionally beats the Virginias and North Carolina States, as Maryland ought to do.
And then it's GMAC Bowl, here we come.