University of Maryland football coach DJ Durkin talks about the importance of spring practices. (Don Markus, Baltimore Sun video)
For as much as Randy Edsall's messy fingerprints blotched DJ Durkin's first year as Maryland football coach, the schedule was something of a cleansing agent.
The Terps opened the year against Howard, a pushover. Their second game was at Florida International, a team that had lost seven games the previous season and then lost its starting quarterback midway through the Maryland matchup. Game Nos. 3 and 4 were at Central Florida and against visiting Purdue, owners of a combined two wins in 2015.
In all, the Terps were significant preseason favorites in five of their 12 games, according to Bill Connelly's advanced-metrics preview for SB Nation. They won their first four, added a fifth victory against an underwhelming Michigan State team and notched the all-important sixth win against Rutgers in the season finale. Like that, they were back to bowling. Momentum regained, a Quick Lane Bowl loss to Boston College notwithstanding.
Early Tuesday morning, the 2016-17 college football season ended, which meant that hours later, everyone's 2017 preseason rankings were available. Two things are clear: First, Alabama's not going anywhere. No, sir. And second, the Terps are, on paper, going to need to make some kind of jump, or get some type of luck, to qualify for the postseason in Durkin's second year.
For the sake of simplicity, lets take ESPN's Way-Too-Early 2017 Top 25. There are four Big Ten Conference teams among the top 12: No. 4 Penn State, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 12 Michigan. Because of divisional alingment, Maryland and Indiana are the only two conference teams that will face all four. And the Hoosiers get the better of even that dubious distinction, hosting three of those games in Bloomington, while the Terps get just two in College Park.
Elsewhere, the pickings are slim. Maryland opens its season not against a Football Championship Subdivision featherweight but against Texas, which had recruited like a top-15 program under since-fired coach Charlie Strong and now will pack Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to the gills for presumed coaching savant Tom Herman's burnt-orange debut. The Longhorns, ESPN's preseason No. 25, return 18 starters, including stud-in-training Shane Buechele under center.
The Terps get Towson at Maryland Stadium next, a likely win but no gimme, especially without a competent quarterback, before wrapping up conference play again against Central Florida. The Knights managed a six-win turnaround in 2016 and had just three senior starters listed on their offensive depth chart for their bowl game.
If the Terps get two wins from nonleague play, where do the four other they need come from? In the Big Ten, Maryland hosts Northwestern, Indiana, the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions, all bowl teams this past season. A .500 record at Maryland Stadium is probably a must. Road challenges against Minnesota, the Buckeyes, Badgers and Michigan State, as well as a game against Rutgers at Yankee Stadium, also beckon.
Good recruiting can make winners out of losers, and Durkin's salesmanship of his vision has been Don Draper-esque. But every sweet-sounding promise of a turnaround has an expiration date, and the history of Terps coaches with losing seasons in their first two years has forged a rule with no exceptions. Since the end of World War II, none of those slow starters has lasted longer than five seasons:
Tommy Mont (11-18, three seasons)
Bob Ward (2-17, two seasons)
Roy Lester (7-25, three seasons)
Joe Krivak (20-34, five seasons)
Mark Duffner (20-35, five seasons)
Ron Vanderlinden (15-29, four seasons)
Randy Edsall (22-34, four-plus seasons)
Maryland was young this season, and it has recruited a big and talented incoming class of freshmen. That bodes well for improvement in the areas where the Terps were lackluster in 2016. They should be familiar enough with the Big Ten in this, their fouth season since leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference. A win over Texas, however unlikely, would mean immeasurably more than another leisurely Saturday matinee against Howard.
But programs are measured by their bowl games — whether they win enough to make one, and then which one they're in. Maryland won six games in 2016, a successful season by most reasonable expectations. The Terps should be better in 2017. Only their record might not show it.