COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - The students danced on the field. The players defended their home. And the coaches beamed with pride. This win was worth savoring.
"Until 12:01," Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin said.
And he's right. The Terps wake up today, fresh off yesterday's 17-15 come-from-behind win over No. 17 North Carolina, and have less than a week to decide how their season will end: dripping in orange juice or drowned in tears?
As it concerns Maryland football, let's agree that educated, calculated predictions are about as accurate as a coin flip. That said, there are two near-certainties that became clear with last night's big win.
First, the Terps are not a great football team. Sure, they've beaten four ranked schools this year - more than any other team in the nation, in fact - but they're about as impressive as a karaoke singer with a head cold. Their quarterback is streaky, their offensive line takes occasional weekends off, and they have wide receivers who disappear for long stretches and a defense that's reliably unreliable from week to week.
Second, the Terps are my favorites to play in the Orange Bowl.
Don't waste your time looking for the logic there. The disconnect is huge and requires a compass for navigation.
With the win over the Tar Heels, this marks the first time since Ralph Friedgen's first year as Terps coach that Maryland has been positioned so nicely for the postseason. The Terps will reach the Atlantic Coast Conference title game if they beat visiting Florida State on Saturday night. In the ACC championship game, they would compete on a neutral field against some conference foe that's just as unpredictable and just as ho-hum as Maryland.
So why are the Terps the sudden favorite to climb out of the trash heap that is ACC football and reach the Orange Bowl in Miami?
It's not rocket science. Some team has to, and Maryland is the only one of the conference teams still in contention that has consistently shown it can win a big game.
Yesterday's victory wasn't another check mark on the schedule. It was the kind of win that catapults a team.
"We knew that if we could get this win, it could change the trajectory of the season," quarterback Chris Turner said.
No other conference team has shown it can pull out these gutsy and timely games, and with two such games standing in the Terps' way between here and Miami - against Florida State and then potentially the ACC championship game Dec. 6 - it's tough to pick against them.
The first obstacle is Saturday when the Seminoles come to town. Maryland has not lost at home in more than a year. With their seniors playing for a final time in front of their home fans, it should be a safe assumption we'll see the focused and determined Terps team that man-handled Wake Forest a month ago, not the Maryland squad that sleep-walked through that embarrassing loss at Virginia two weeks earlier.
The Terps have won their past six games against ranked foes. For some reason, these Terps play listless and uninspired in games against lesser foes. But throw a number in front of an opponent's name, and it's a different Maryland team. The Terps cling to their modest slingshot and don't stop firing until a giant crashes to the ground.
"I'd like to tell you it's great coaching," Friedgen said. "But it's really the kids who rise to the occasion."
They did it again yesterday. The Terps were unbalanced, made foolish errors and failed to capitalize on North Carolina's numerous mistakes. But when it came time to play big - trailing 15-14 in the fourth quarter - you could almost hear an alarm clock buzzing.
Maryland moved 73 yards in 19 plays and chewed nearly nine minutes off the clock. Obi Egekeze's 26-yard field goal with 1:42 remaining gave the Terps a two-point lead and showed once again there's no other ACC team that revels so much in knocking off a favorite.
To be fair, none of the four wins over ranked foes showcased Maryland as a top-tier team. In fact, has anyone seen California, Wake Forest or Clemson in the Top 25 lately? And there weren't many instances yesterday that the Tar Heels looked like they belonged in the polls either.
The Terps aren't talented enough to be football giants. But they've got the character, will and desire to be giant-killers. Because the ACC lacks a great team, that will be enough this year. No, they're not great, but greatness isn't required.
Friedgen walked into his post-game news conference and was as baffled as anyone. "Well, what can I say?" he began.
It's like he doesn't believe it. And why should he? Seven years ago, he took a great Terps team to the Orange Bowl. This year, he has a worse team but a pretty promising path.