On Saturday, the Maryland and Towson football teams will play for just the second time in program history. The game has been on the schedule since 2013, a period spanning three Terps head coaches. But two years ago, another of Maryland's more recent commitments — to the Big Ten Conference — seemed to threaten the long-planned reunion of the state's biggest universities.
Citing a desire to bolster the Big Ten's strength of schedule and TV offerings, league commissioner Jim Delany announced in July 2015 that member schools had committed to no longer scheduling Football Championship Subdivision opponents, effective the following year. The Tigers, in college football's second tier since 1987, already had signed a contract for a "guarantee game" — a financial boon for the athletic department, which needed only to bus Towson down Interstate 95 for the matchup.
When he heard Delany's scheduling edict, Tigers coach Rob Ambrose went to Towson athletic director Tim Leonard.
"If the Big Ten's going to not let us play that game, then they're violating the contract and you need to call them out now and take the money," Ambrose recalled telling Leonard. "And, by the way, I want the money." He laughed. "But I would rather play the game. I would much rather play the game."
He'd make an annual series out of the game if he could — the Terps and Tigers are scheduled to play next in 2020 — but for now anyway, there is one less barrier to that goal: The Big Ten's FCS ban does not apply in years when league teams play just four of their nine conference games at home. (Big Ten schedules for 2020 and beyond have not yet been announced.)
Delany acknowledged in July that "after watching things play out over the last three years, we noted that we were the only conference to go totally in that direction" of not scheduling FCS schools. Ambrose said Wednesday that common sense had prevailed among "Power Five" conferences.
"When they realize that they're cutting out, I don't know, 120-something possible games, they decided maybe that's not the smartest thing in the world to do," he said. "You're running out of people to play.
"There's no coach in America worth his salt and a brain that's going to put his kids through that kind of grinder. If I'm the head coach at LSU or Maryland, yeah, I'm going to want to play an FCS game. I am. It's good for my kids. It's good for the longevity of the year. And if they don't want us to play an FCS game, as a [Division] I-A guy, then play 10 games and stop telling me about student-athlete welfare."
Ambrose and his team did not have to look too far back for why some Football Bowl Subdivision teams would be hesitant. In a topsy-turvy opening weekend, FCS schools Howard and Liberty stunned Nevada-Las Vegas and Baylor, respectively, on the road Saturday.
Even in Maryland and Towson's inaugural meeting, in 2011, the Terps won handily, 28-3, despite being outgained.
"Most of them are bigger, faster, stronger," said defensive back Monty Fenner, who had an interception in the Tigers' 10-0 win Saturday over Morgan State. "But size doesn't mean nothing, so we're just going to go down there and play how we play."
Part of the FBS-FCS imbalance is foundational. The Terps can offer 85 full scholarships annually; the Tigers, just 63. The Terps can review their upset of Texas in a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility. The Tigers were chased off the field Tuesday when lightning struck in the distance. The Terps will play at Maryland Stadium before an eager home-opener crowd. The Tigers will not.
There is every reason for Maryland to feel good about its chances Saturday. Ambrose knows that's just not enough sometimes.
"I understand why Maryland doesn't want to" schedule Towson, Ambrose said. "It makes sense. If I were the head coach at Maryland, I probably wouldn't want to do it, either. If they don't beat the hell out of us, it's a 'lose.' They've been doing this correctly as a Division I school forever. We've been doing it correctly as a Division I school for about five minutes. So if we're even in the ballpark against them, it's a 'lose' perception. And God help 'em if we actually win."
TOWSON QB: Towson redshirt freshman Ryan Stover will make his first career start Saturday. Morgan Mahalak will miss the game due to an upper body injury. Stover, who made his collegiate debut last week against Morgan State, will be backed up by Triston Harris.
In his first college action, Stover went 5-for-12 for 44 yards. On his first play, he found Jabari Greenwood for an 18-yard completion. He would later add a 24-yard completion to Morgan Scroggins.