COLLEGE PARK -- Even though the talk is a bit premature, University of Maryland football players are starting to whisper about a bowl game and an Atlantic Coast Conference title.
But to prove that Maryland (3-2 overall, 1-1 ACC) is a serious contender for either, the Terps say they have to beat No. 23 Georgia Tech (3-0, 1-0) today at noon at Byrd Stadium.
"In a sense, this is our season," said Scott Rosen, one of the Terps' starting cornerbacks. "If we lose, we still have a shot at a winning season, but it puts us in a big hole in the conference race. But if we win, it improves our chances of getting to a bowl game and helps our confidence in the next three games, which are conference games."
Hardly anyone wants to say it, but if Maryland wins today, the Terps should win the next three games against Wake Forest (2-2, 0-1), Duke (1-3, 0-2) and North Carolina (3-2, 0-1).
That would leave Maryland with non-conference foe Penn State and a possible showdown for the league championship against No. 4 Virginia (5-0, 2-0) Nov. 17.
"This game could carry us through the second half of the season," said Maryland defensive tackle Larry Webster. "The league has changed some. Duke is down, and Clemson is just average. We win this one, we've got a pretty good shot at the title."
The game is just as important to Georgia Tech, a new power in the conference. Since beating Maryland, 28-24, last October, the Yellow Jackets have won nine of their past 10.
After playing Maryland today, Georgia Tech faces Clemson (4-1, 2-1), North Carolina, Duke and then Virginia.
"They [Maryland] are a lot tougher than they were last year," Georgia Tech fullback Stefen Scotton said. "They are the toughest we have faced this year. We're going to have to win the battle on the line and keep the pressure off the quarterback."
Pressure on Georgia Tech quarterback Shawn Jones, who is questionable with a sprained ankle, is the key for a Maryland win. The Terps, in 3 1/2 seasons under coach Joe Krivak, have had trouble with option quarterbacks.
Jones, 6 feet 1, 214 pounds, a sophomore, has not run the option as much as a year ago, but he still has completed 35 of 62 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns. Last season, he completed touchdown passes of 18, 9 and 5 yards against the Terps.
"He killed us last year with his scrambling, running and throwing," said Rosen. "I'm kind of glad to see him not running as much. I guess the coaches found out how much he was worth to the team and asked him to stick closer to the pocket. Our outside linebackers are going to have to have big games, because he has to be contained."
But this offense is not just Jones. Georgia Tech has some fine receivers in split end Emmett Merchant (nine receptions, 150 yards), flanker Bobby Rodriguez (five, 93) and tight end Tom Covington (three, 28).
But while the Yellow Jackets have been averaging 326 yards of total offense, it's been against North Carolina State, South Carolina and Tennessee-Chattanooga.
None of those teams had a defense the caliber of Maryland's, which is allowing only 118.8 yards rushing and 171.4 yards passing per game.
"You're looking at one of the better defenses in the entire league," said Tech coach Bobby Ross. "They return 10 starters off their 1989 team." Georgia Tech has played well on defense, too. The Yellow Jackets have yet to allow an offensive touchdown, and they are ranked eighth nationally, third against the pass, with 10 interceptions. The key players are inside linebackers Jerrelle Williams and Calvin Tiggle, cornerbacks Willie Clay and Keith Holmes and safeties Ken Swilling and Thomas Balkcom.