Heading into his team’s regular-season finale at Rutgers, Maryland coach Michael Locksley outlined the similar challenges his team and the Scarlet Knights, the Big Ten’s two newest active members, have faced as the proverbial new kids on the conference block.
“You’re new, you get the bottom of it. The scheduling is always tough. It’s hard. ... We’re trying to grow programs against a conference that has quite a few teams that are what most of us would consider blue blood programs,” Locksley said. “We’re in major metropolitan areas. Everybody comes in and recruits in our backyards, and we’re grinding to develop programs and compete for championships.”
Even though the programs entered on similar footing, the Terps have dominated their nominal conference rivals since their first Big Ten season in 2014. Entering Saturday’s game, Locksley’s team was 6-3 against Rutgers and had outscored the Scarlet Knights by a combined 61 points in the last two matchups.
But this year’s Rutgers team was no pushover. The Scarlet Knights, who hadn’t won six games since 2014, hit that mark and clinched bowl eligibility within their first eight games. Even after Rutgers’ three-game losing streak, both schools entered the matchup with 6-5 records.
Their performances in another Maryland blowout belied their similarities and reaffirmed a point about the Terps, one that feels like a backhanded compliment but is really an important step for the program.
They don’t suck.
Respectability isn’t the high bar that Locksley set for his team when he entered the 2023 campaign talking about competing for Big Ten titles.
But it’s a step for a program that’s won seven straight games for the third straight year for the first time since the 2001-03 seasons. Look back through Maryland’s schedule and examine its losses. Three came to top-10 teams: No. 2 Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 10 Penn State. The Terps lost by one score to a resurgent and bowl-eligible Northwestern. Their worst loss came on a walk-off field goal to a five-win Illinois squad.
After a four-game losing streak, Maryland avoided disaster with its walk-off win over Nebraska and, in doing so, made sure the season was only a mild disappointment. That matters.
Locksley praised his seniors, some of whom played their last game for him Saturday, for laying the foundation he hopes leads to future success.
“The future is bright here because of them making decisions to come when it wasn’t cool to come to Maryland,” he said. “There’s some talented players that had a chance to go to a lot of places and these guys made a decision that they wanted to take the hard road and because of that, where they leave our program, we now have the opportunity to recruit some of the best players in the country.”
The principle figure in that rebuild, Taulia Tagovailoa, closed his final regular-season game by becoming the Big Ten’s all-time passing yards leader. His transfer from Alabama gave Maryland a steady spot at an uncertain position, a stability that instantly vaulted the Terps above many programs — including Rutgers — in the Big Ten.
There are questions as to what Locksley’s program will look like without that quarterback stability. His only year without Tagovailoa was his first, a three-win season in 2019.
But Maryland’s roster is substantially better than it was then, as witnessed by the 16 players who earned All-Big Ten recognition — the program’s most since joining the conference. The selections show the Terps’ approach to player acquisition — 12 of the 16 are Maryland recruits.
That stat embodies the Terps’ principal philosophy: Build your roster by recruiting and developing high school talent. It’s an effective strategy for a coach adept at canvassing the area like Locksley.
The coach has used the transfer portal, showing an adaptability to the current realities of college football, landing starters such as Donnell Brown on the defensive line, Corey Bullock and Gottlieb Ayedze on the offensive line and Ja’Quan Sheppard at corner.
Those players aren’t cornerstones. They’re short-term solutions to fill holes on Maryland’s roster. They take spots that could be filled with bad players and turn them into average or even slightly above-average ones.
That might not sound like much, but it’s akin to sealing a gaping wound rather than leaving it exposed it for opponents to slash away.
It’s also not dissimilar to the Terps’ 2023 season — another respectable campaign that didn’t derail Maryland’s long-term future.