COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - Dust is accumulating inside the trophy case marked with a small, red tag reading, "Reserved for next ACC championship trophy."
The case sits in a hallway outside the Gossett Football Team House dining room, where several Maryland players talked excitedly yesterday about their prospects for replacing that all-too-conspicuous void with a gold-plated Atlantic Coast Conference trophy.
Only in this season of parity, in which preseason favorite Clemson already has three conference losses, could there still be hope - optimism, even - that the Terps (5-2, 2-1 ACC) might fulfill their preseason ambitions.
"I've gotten a chance to see all the [five] teams left on our schedule, and I think we have a very strong chance of winning out if we play like we did last week," senior wide receiver Danny Oquendo said, referring to Saturday's 26-0 victory over Wake Forest. "We have the athletic ability and the skills to become a top ACC team and go to the championship."
Like the Clemson victory and the Virginia defeat before it, the Wake Forest game seemed to flip Maryland's season.
Just 18 days ago, coach Ralph Friedgen slumped in his chair in a Scott Stadium interview room after the Terps were manhandled, 31-0, at Virginia. Friedgen openly wondered whether he still had the ability to reach his players. "You guys must think I'm out here trying to throw these games," the coach dejectedly told media members gathered around.
Friedgen was so down after the game that it took a bye-week scrimmage by Maryland's young players and walk-ons to revive his spirits. The game, played on the Maryland practice field against tiny North Carolina Tech, "helped me," Friedgen said. "I saw a bunch of kids having fun and playing hard and enjoying it, and that made me feel pretty good."
Friedgen also found solace in the ACC standings. Not only is there no dominant team, but one could also make a case for any of seven or eight teams advancing to the title game in Tampa, Fla., on Dec. 6 and winning the crown. The four teams receiving the most media votes in the ACC preseason poll (Clemson, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina) have a combined conference mark of 6-7.
Maryland, Wake Forest, Boston College and Florida State are tied atop the Atlantic Division with one conference loss apiece. Three of Maryland's final five games are at home.
"It's a crazy race," said Friedgen, who last won the title in 2001, his first season at Maryland. "To me, it's down to a five-game playoff right now. The team that has the best record these last five games is going to be the team that plays in Tampa."
It's debatable whether the parity is a plus or minus for the ACC.
Players and coaches enjoy it because it leads to plenty of close games and competitive teams. Consider North Carolina State, Maryland's opponent Saturday and the only team without a conference win. On Oct. 4, the Wolfpack lost, 38-31, in the last minute to Boston College, now ranked No. 23 after beating Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Oquendo compared the ACC to the NFL's NFC East. "The Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Redskins - they're all pretty much even, I think. I would compare it to that," the receiver said.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said: "I don't think there's a team in our league that feels very comfortable week in and week out. That's maybe the only consistent thing in the league right now. Every week if you don't play well, you're not going to win."
To others, the parity means mediocrity. The league has a 1-9 record in Bowl Championship Series bowl games. The ACC has been unable to place more than one team - the conference champion - in a BCS game.
Georgia Tech, Boston College and Florida State are ranked in this week's Top 25, but none is above No. 21. Part of the ACC's problem the past few years is that traditional powers Florida State and Miami have been in down cycles. Florida State, which plays Maryland on Nov. 22, has won three in a row.
But to Maryland, the closeness of the standings means the Terps - who have a penchant for playing up or down to the level of opposition - have an opening.
Has Maryland found itself at just the right time?
"It's late in the season to say this, but we are getting closer to it," senior linebacker Moise Fokou said. "I think we're clicking together as a whole unit. We're starting to trust each other."
Before the Wake Forest game, Maryland coaches said they saw only flashes of the team's potential. Coaches would cite the first half against California - an offensive display so potent that offensive coordinator James Franklin punched a drawing board in excitement at halftime.
"We'd played halves, we'd played quarters," Fokou said. But against Wake, he said, Maryland finally played "a complete game" that has allowed its players and fans to again think big.
MARYLAND'S REMAINING SCHEDULE
* Saturday vs. N.C. State (2-5, 0-3 ACC)
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Radio: 105.7 FM, 1300 AM
Line: Maryland (5-2, 2-1) by 10 1/2
* Nov. 6 at Virginia Tech (5-2, 2-1), 7:30 p.m.
* Nov. 15 vs. North Carolina (5-2, 1-2), TBA
* Nov. 22 vs. Florida State (5-1, 2-1), TBA
* Nov. 29 at Boston College (5-1, 2-1), TBA