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Even with loss Saturday, Terps' move to Big Ten is going according to plan

COLLEGE PARK — Maryland has played big games at Byrd Stadium before, but there is no longer any question that the decision to jump to the Big Ten Conference has electrified the atmosphere around the football program.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that coach Randy Edsall and his team already have exceeded expectations in their first season playing in one of college football's expanded super-conferences. They entered Saturday night's game against No.12 Michigan State already bowl-eligible with three regular-season games left to improve their postseason prospects.

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This is just how university president Wallace Loh and athletic director Kevin Anderson envisioned it when they pushed through the very controversial decision to bolt from the Atlantic Coast Conference and eventually pay a $31 million exit fee to mine the greater economic and educational potential of the Big Ten.

In a truly perfect world, the Terps wouldn't have struggled to a mistake-riddled 37-15 loss before a sellout crowd of 51,802, but they were playing one of the elite teams in college football and they still have some work to do to get to the upper echelon of their new conference.

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First things first.

The Spartans packed the house on Saturday night and the game was featured in the prime time slot on the Big Ten Network. If there was any doubt that the conference shift would upgrade the national stature of the Maryland program, it evaporated with the big comeback wins over Iowa and Penn State.

"For us to play before a capacity crowd on national TV," Anderson said, "this is what the vision was all about and now it's happened. On a lot of fronts, we've had a great tour in the Big Ten so far with all of our sports, and football is doing well. It couldn't be playing out better."

The whole thing probably seems like a no-brainer now, but it wasn't then. There was plenty of flak from fans and boosters reluctant to let go of six decades of ACC tradition. Maryland appeared to be on the hook for a much higher exit fee, and there was real concern that the football program would be cruising for a weekly bruising against the bulky Midwestern power teams in the East Division.

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Now that the administrative smoke has cleared and the first high-profile sport has performed well, it's hard to find anyone with a discouraging word to say about the move.

"This is what we knew the Big Ten would be," said Colin Potts, who was president of the Terrapin Club, the school's booster group, when the decision was made to make the conference shift. "It's new rivalries … new traditions. But we also have the traditions of Maryland and we have a lot to be proud of. It has certainly blossomed into a great experience for all the Maryland fans. To me, it's been a grand slam."

It would certainly be a different conversation if the Terps had arrived in mid-November with a 3-6 record instead of 6-3, but they have already done what they needed to do most. They have proven over the past 21/2 months that they belong in this tough conference, even if there still is another competitive level they must achieve to become a Big Ten power.

Ohio State and Wisconsin drove home that point with lopsided victories and the Terps entered Saturday's game still looking for their first victory against a ranked team since Nov. 27, 2010, when they defeated No. 21 North Carolina State in Ralph Friedgen's final regular-season game as head coach. They didn't get it, but they were not overmatched by the Spartans. The Terrapins simply made too many mistakes to keep the game interesting.

"When we entered the Big Ten, it was to be competitive and to be competitive at the highest level," Anderson said. "We've played some great teams. We've played Ohio State. We played Wisconsin. We'll play Michigan State. They've set the standard, at least football-wise, in this conference and that's what we aspire to be. We've seen, competing against Ohio State and Wisconsin, what it's going to take for us to get to that higher level, and we're more than capable of doing it.

"In the next couple weeks we'll make some announcements that will prove that's what we aspire to be. We want to be a top-10 program in everything we compete in … academically as well as athletically."

Maryland has won the games it needed to win to establish some immediate credibility in the conference, which is saying quite a lot considering the difficult circumstances that Edsall had to overcome during his first three seasons here.

The Terps struggled to a 2-10 record in his first season and went through four quarterbacks in a star-crossed 2012 campaign. Edsall finally delivered a winning season last year in spite of several more key injuries, and expressed confidence during preseason workouts that his team was ready to take a big step forward this season. I'm not sure how many people really believed him then, but everyone is pretty happy with where things are now.

"I think it shows that we can compete," Potts said, "and you look at soccer and field hockey and all the teams that are vying for championships and what we've been able to accomplish. We had great [football] wins over Penn State and Iowa … Indiana on the road. So to me, we can compete and we will do well in the Big Ten, and it shows already."

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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