BLACKSBURG, Va. — BLACKSBURG, Va. - Intense investigative work isn't usually required: College bowl officials, it turns out, are pretty easy to spot. They're usually wearing a grateful grin and a colorful jacket, something you would imagine Craig Sager donated to charity.
Eight of them were in the press box at Lane Stadium last night, witnessing firsthand the mystery of the Maryland Terrapins, a group that fears no ranked team yet stumbles against lesser foes.
"We have to decide what we want to be," coach Ralph Friedgen said after the game.
There has never been more urgency attached to such a challenge, not this season and perhaps never before in Friedgen's tenure.
The Terps' 23-13 loss to Virginia Tech wasn't always pretty and was hardly definitive, so let's not think some bowl official is the ultimate judge or jury of these Terps. And especially not of their coach.
Four years had passed since the Terps last visited Blacksburg. (In case you've blocked out that memory, the Hokies won, 55-6.) Maryland fans reasonably expect the Terps to have made serious strides since then. In 2004, the Hokies were the ranked team; this time around, it was Maryland in the polls. So what did we learn?
No, the score was nothing like that prior visit (and winning in Blacksburg certainly hasn't become any easier), but where exactly was the Terps fan supposed to take solace? Certainly not in an offensive line that couldn't open a hole or a defensive line that couldn't close one.
(Figure this one out: Quarterback Chris Turner threw for 240 yards, yet the Terps netted only 228 yards of offense. Meanwhile, against a veteran Maryland defensive line, Hokies freshman tailback Darren Evans ran for 253 yards.)
As important as last night's game seemed, it's difficult to overstate what is on the line these next two games. The stakes are high. The Atlantic Coast Conference title game is still possible, but if Maryland fails to recover from last night, the entire program could soon face an uncomfortable judgment day. And no, the judge won't be wearing a fancy bowl patch on the breast of a lime-green jacket.
Friedgen entered the season fully aware that his program needed to show signs of progress. Despite bowl appearances each of the past two seasons, fans rightly expect more. A mid-tier bowl game is no longer enough.
Despite the successes this year - which include three wins over ranked teams - the Terps could still end up in the Meineke Car Care Bowl as easily as the Orange Bowl. Which means these next few weeks, the jury will be scrutinizing Friedgen more than ever.
The coach and his team shouldn't be judged on a single loss. But because the program has shown signs of stalling, a verdict of some sort should be expected at season's end.
For the Terps, the season has been marked by nosebleed highs and Xanax lows. In many ways and for many reasons, they're fortunate they can lose to Virginia Tech and still find themselves in the Atlantic Division hunt.
"We still have an opportunity," Friedgen said.
Last night sure suggested that the team hasn't made huge strides since 2004. Friedgen has three games to prove otherwise.
Three games to show the difference between Meineke and Miami.
Three games to show the difference between what the Terps were and what they are, between what they are and what they could be.
The possibilities were all in attendance last night, dressed like 1970s used-car salesmen, watching through a thick pane of glass from high above. They represented the EagleBank Bowl, the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Konica-Minolta Gator Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Champs Sports Bowl.
And they were all wondering the same thing as Terps fans, the same as Friedgen: Just who is this team?
The inexplicable duality of this team can be maddening.
In the end, last night brought another unimpressive performance against another unranked foe, from a Terps team that stops to catch its breath every time it feels even a hint of momentum.
Friedgen says the Terps need to decide what they want to be, which is a distressing challenge this late in the season. You get the sense, though, that we'll find out soon enough. And when we do, the great unveiling will tell us as much about the state of Maryland's football program as it will this team's postseason plans.