ORLANDO, Fla. --There's been much talk this week about the similarities between Maryland's and Purdue's football programs. After all, it was just one year ago that both teams navigated the busy college bowl season relying on the same piece of equipment as their fans - a remote control.
After playing in three straight bowl games, the Terps missed the postseason each of the past two years. And after making eight straight bowl appearances, the Boilermakers emptied their lockers early last year, finishing the season one win shy of bowl eligibility.
Yup, tonight's Champs Sports Bowl features teams on the rebound, from big conferences, with speedy receivers, led by offensive-minded coaches. And "we both share the same barber," joked Purdue coach Joe Tiller, who like Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, roams the sideline wearing a cap that hides what isn't there.
I'm willing to buy that these are two similar teams and two similar coaches and two similar programs. But the game itself seems to draw yawns from anyone who doesn't have a Maryland degree hanging on the wall or a Boilermaker sweat shirt hanging in the closet. ESPN's Pat Forde even called Maryland the worst eight-win team in the nation - "perhaps ever," he says. And, it's tough to admit this, but he might be right.
So it's worth asking, what does this game actually mean to the Terps and the Boilermakers, and what exactly are these respective programs getting out of this?
If you're a player for either team, you just had a pretty decent Christmas. The Champs Sports Bowl stuffed each player's stocking with a 15-inch TV and DVD player, a commemorative watch and a pile of other goodies that we might find on eBay next week.
The rewards for their respective programs, though, aren't quite as tangible, not immediately at least. When it comes to schools like Maryland and Purdue - programs that consistently teeter on the edge of consistency - winning tonight's game doesn't mean as much as actually playing in tonight's game.
By making a few postseason appearances, the Boilermakers and Terps set a standard for their programs, placing the bar just high enough where it was only a matter of time before that bar crashed down.
These past few months, both teams decisively reminded the experts, their fan bases and themselves exactly in which direction their programs are pointed. And that's a good thing for the Terps, because despite the bowl invite and despite an 8-4 season, this Maryland team relied more on heart than talent. A win over Purdue doesn't confirm the Terps as a great team, no matter how it looks in 10 years when the details are a bit fuzzy and our memories a bit lax.
We view tonight's game in a larger context. The bowl appearance - this entire season, actually - should bridge the gap, connecting failure and success. Appearing in a bowl game is a symbolic step. The specifics of the postseason are easily lost and rarely carry much consequence. I can no more tell you who won the past five Champs Sports Bowl games than I could name all 5,000 corporations that attach a logo to a bowl game.
The Terps are back in the postseason, and win or lose, that's what carries the most weight. That's what you sell to recruits. That's what you tell the university president when you're begging for money. That's what you remind fans and boosters and alums during the bad times.
In this sense, Maryland has already won.
"Now we're going to get this program on a roll and in a bowl every year," said the Terps' Josh Wilson, "and, hopefully, those guys can maybe get to the national championship next year so I can bet on 'em."
"Kidding," defensive coordinator Chris Cosh quickly interjected. "He was kidding."
"Hey, I'll be ineligible," said Wilson, a senior playing one final time in Terps colors tonight.
Coaches talk about the postseason using a different language than usual, like playing a December game in Orlando is akin to an African safari. Suddenly, football is an "experience" - not a game.
Players will certainly remember the final score, but they'll also remember visiting with underprivileged children, spending a week in a posh hotel and wearing shorts and flip-flops in the winter. And fans will remember an end-of-the-year vacation with theme parks, bad chain restaurants and Friday night football. (And I'll remember spotting the Boilermaker mascot, Purdue Pete, and wondering if he and the Burger King might soon appear on The Maury Povich Show for a paternity test.)
This Terps team has 16 starters expected back next year. There's no reason Maryland shouldn't be able to forge even better memories a year from now. This season included successes built off under-performing conference foes, a 1-4 record against ranked opponents and a fortunate stretch in which the Terps won five straight games by a combined 13 points. A win tonight doesn't really dress up those details too much. Just as a loss doesn't diminish the real accomplishments.
The history books will show that the Champs Sports Bowl concluded the Terps' 2006 campaign. And even though the bowl season is meant to provide closure on a season, for a team like the Terps, a bowl appearance sure feels like it's validating the future, not the past.
Independence Bowl -- Oklahoma State 34, Alabama 31 Holiday Bowl -- California 45, Texas A&M; 10 Texas Bowl -- Rutgers 37, Kansas State 10
Music City Bowl -- at Nashville, Tenn., Clemson vs. Kentucky, 1 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Clemson by 9 1/2 Sun Bowl -- at El Paso, Missouri vs. Oregon State, 2 p.m. (chs. 13, 9) Line: Oregon State by 3 1/2 Liberty Bowl -- at Memphis, Tenn., South Carolina vs. Houston, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN) Line: South Carolina by 5 1/2 Insight Bowl -- at Tempe, Ariz., Minnesota vs. Texas Tech, 7:30 p.m. (NFL Network) Line: Texas Tech by 6 1/2 Champs Sports Bowl -- at Orlando, Fla., Maryland vs. Purdue, 8 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Even
Meineke Car Care Bowl -- at Charlotte, N.C., Navy vs. Boston College, 1 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Boston College by 6 Alamo Bowl -- at San Antonio, Iowa vs. Texas, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Texas by 9 Chick-fil-A Bowl -- at Atlanta, Virginia Tech vs. Georgia, 8 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Virginia Tech by 2 1/2
MPC Computers Bowl -- at Boise, Idaho, Nevada vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Miami by 3 1/2
Outback Bowl -- at Tampa, Fla., Penn State vs. Tennessee, 11 a.m. (ESPN) Line: Tennessee by 4 Cotton Bowl -- at Dallas, Auburn vs. Nebraska, 11:30 a.m. (chs. 45, 5) Line: Auburn by 1 1/2 Capital One Bowl -- at Orlando, Fla., Wisconsin vs. Arkansas, 1 p.m. (chs. 2, 7) Line: Arkansas by 1 1/2 Gator Bowl -- at Jacksonville, Fla., Georgia Tech vs. West Virginia, 1 p.m. (chs. 13, 9) Line: West Virginia by 11 Rose Bowl -- at Pasadena, Calif., Southern California vs. Michigan, 5 p.m. (chs. 2, 7) Line: USC by 1 Fiesta Bowl -- at Glendale, Ariz., Boise State vs. Oklahoma, 8:30 p.m. (chs. 45, 5) Line: Oklahoma by 7
Orange Bowl -- at Miami, Wake Forest vs. Louisville, 8 p.m. (chs. 45, 5) Line: Louisville by 10
Sugar Bowl -- at New Orleans, LSU vs. Notre Dame, 8 p.m. (chs. 45, 5) Line: LSU by 9
International Bowl -- at Toronto, Cincinnati vs. Western Michigan, Noon (ESPN2) Line: Cincinnati by 7 1/2
GMAC Bowl -- at Mobile, Ala., Southern Mississippi vs. Ohio, 8 p.m. (ESPN) Line: Southern Miss. by 6
Bowl Championship Series title game -- at Glendale, Ariz., Ohio State vs. Florida, 8 p.m. (chs. 45, 5) Line: Ohio State by 7 1/2