These days, it might seem as if the only thing Maryland football makes you feel is numb.
The last 10-win season was 20 years ago. The team has beaten the conference’s top trio of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State only once in coach Michael Locksley’s tenure, and it still hasn’t topped the Buckeyes at all since joining the Big Ten.
But on Senior Day against No. 2-ranked Michigan, the Terps got just close enough to make the 31-24 loss sting.
It started as expected. Michigan’s pass rushers blasted through Maryland’s offensive line on two first-quarter drives that went backward. Taulia Tagovailoa gave up a touchdown before he scored one, fumbling a ball that the Wolverines scooped up for a score. It wasn’t all that surprising to see Michigan quickly ahead 23-3 in the second quarter.
But the Maryland seniors were determined not to drop without a fight. Tagovailoa had some incredible throws in his home field swan song, including a 34-yarder to Kaden Prather that set up a touchdown to close the gap to five points in the third quarter. The defense impressively pressured Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, including a Ja’Quan Sheppard sack that got the student section rocking. At one point, security guards were readying for the possibility that students might rush the field for the first time since 2007 (back, somehow, when I was a student at Maryland).
But, as has been the case so many times in the last decade, the Terps were bracing for a victory that never arrived. Tagovailoa helped get them close but also shut the door with an intentional grounding penalty that gave Michigan a game-sealing safety. A program-defining win slipped through Maryland’s fingers — appropriate for a program that lacks definition 10 seasons into the Big Ten era.
At least it was nice to see the Maryland fans who came Saturday. It was easy to pick out the red shirts among the sea of Michigan blue. A handful of rowdy Wolverines fans actually did rush the field to join the team celebrating the program’s 1,000th win. Maryland is just 417 victories behind.
“There are no moral victories,” Locksley said, “but this is definitely one of those games I feel like as a program that we’ll be able to build off of.”
Build off a loss? Like the seven-point loss to Michigan last year? Or all the other close defeats to the top teams before that? We can keep waiting, but it hasn’t taken Maryland to new heights yet.
When the Terps jumped the Atlantic Coast Conference ship to the Big Ten, they knew they were signing up for a bunch of trips to the Midwest. But they might not have known they would churn endlessly through the conference’s middle: rarely at the bottom but never ever at the top.
If the Big Ten were an all-you-can-eat buffet, Maryland football would be cantaloupe. It’s nice that it’s there, but who is excited about it?
If the Big Ten were Ocean’s Eleven, Maryland football would be Scott Caan. If it’s not George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon, who cares?
Fans imagined the Terps would have a chance to vault up the college football ladder with more revenue and a higher level of competition. But, instead of pulling themselves up alongside Ohio State and Michigan, Maryland has often served as the little brother for the Big Ten′s big boys. Big Ten TV revenue is as good as it gets in college football, but the Terps still aren’t on the same playing field, with half the budget of the Buckeyes and Wolverines, according to available data.
The close score on Saturday creates the illusion of being on the cusp. But, with a senior quarterback and a talented cast of playmakers, this was the year to actually win. Being crushed by Ohio State and Penn State is probably the more accurate representation of where Maryland is. And, even when the Terps do play the blue-chippers close, they almost always lose.
Concerningly, the Terps are about to be pushed further down the food chain.
Next season, the Pac-12 survivors climb aboard the Big Ten raft. Maryland will host USC and visit Oregon. Washington is one of the best programs in the country; UCLA always has tremendous athletes, if not the desired records to match. All of these schools have a more appreciable football tradition than Maryland, which keeps fading into the background of its own conference.
Locksley has to feel his seat getting warm, especially after another disappointing fade down the stretch and another year without a win against a ranked conference opponent. His body of work this season (especially losses to Illinois and Northwestern) doesn’t inspire the idea that the program is gaining ground.
But what is Maryland’s ceiling, really? Who is going to come in and overhaul the program and suddenly aim higher than Locksley has achieved, getting bowl eligible three straight years? Given where the Terps are in the hierarchy, cycling through coaches every few years (besides being expensive, right, Texas A&M?) probably won’t get them where they want to go.
Maryland’s lagging momentum is not only about coaching.
It’s about a conference move that, while incredibly lucrative and stabilizing for the school’s long-term future, has not led to invigorating rivalries or electrifying successes on the football field.
It’s about a market that has more charismatic teams that compete for fan interest and dollars. That’s why, on weekends when they don’t play an opponent with an impressive traveling fan base, the stands at SECU Stadium are chronically sparse.
It’s about a program that, despite pouring $150 million into a state-of-the-art practice facility, hasn’t seen an appreciable recruiting bump. Signing talent is now about NIL dollars, not how nice your weight room is. So far, Maryland collectively hasn’t mustered the bankroll to offer top guys.
Ultimately the biggest issues with Maryland football are structural, factors that make upward mobility difficult and increasingly unlikely with the Big Ten pool about to span coast to coast. There are passionate fans of Terps football, but not nearly enough of them — and why invest when the product feels this bland?
It’s hard not to feel for the seniors. Tagovailoa, who will leave Maryland as the school leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns and passing efficiency, was honored while Michigan fans were already filling the bleachers. After he and his fellow seniors helped lift the program from the depths after Jordan McNair’s death and pushed through the COVID-19 pandemic, they nonetheless seem destined to be sprinkled throughout the school media guide while playing for middling teams.
“It’s a blessing having my name in the record books and stuff like that,” Tagovailoa said. “I just really wish I could give Coach Locks the victories he deserves.”
But, for Maryland football, maybe middling is as good as it gets.