COLLEGE PARK - Let's begin by introducing the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.
They are a small second-year Division I-A independent school that is faced with an identity crisis right now. School officials have changed the name from Middle Tennessee State to the University of Middle Tennessee and they prefer to be called Middle Tennessee. Middle Tennessee is a more upscale name befitting a legitimate Division I-A program.
Middle Tennessee State carries the usual small-time stigma of all schools that end in "State." That is why Towson State became Towson University four years ago.
The problem for Middle Tennessee is almost everybody still calls it Middle Tennessee State, a tag that makes it hard to shake the Division I-AA status of past years.
But the Blue Raiders are scheduled to play in the Sun Belt's new seven-member I-A football league next season. They have nearby Nashville and the Tennessee Titans as well as the prestige of a National Hockey League expansion team called the Nashville Predators. Middle Tennessee is located in Murfreesboro, 35 miles south of Nashville.
The most recognizable player to come out of Middle Tennessee for Baltimore football fans was defensive back played for the Baltimore Colts from 1973 to 1977. Blue Raiders coach Andy McCollum was interviewed three years ago by Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden for a vacant assistant coaching defensive position, and the two men are still friends.
But that friendship had nothing to do with the scheduling of tonight's 6 o'clock clash between Maryland (1-1) and Middle Tennessee (1-2) at Byrd Stadium.
"I wasn't at Middle Tennessee when this game was arranged," said McCollum, an assistant at Baylor six years before being named the head coach at Middle Tennessee on Dec. 8, 1998. "I wish we weren't playing Maryland because they're a much stronger program now under Coach Vanderlinden than they were when this game was set up."
The Blue Raiders were a successful Division I-AA team from 1983 to 1995, making seven trips to the I-AA playoffs before falling on some hard times the next three seasons.
But the skid didn't stop Middle Tennessee from moving up to the top I-A level in 1999 and bringing in McCollum. The Blue Raiders went 3-8 last season and have already been blitzed this season by No.3 Florida, 55-0, and No.$19 Illinois, 35-6.
Now it's Maryland's turn to introduce the Blue Raiders to the big time.
However, Vanderlinden said he would prefer to "have a week off to let a Matt Crawford and a Bob Krantz rest."
Krantz, the team's starting right guard, is typical of the siege of minor injuries that has swept through the beleaguered offensive line. Krantz played the first two games of the season with turf toe and a sprained toe, but those nagging injuries were much improved Wednesday and he was able to practice nearly at top speed.
But just before practice ended Wednesday, Krantz injured his back and had to miss practice Thursday.
Crawford, the starter at right tackle, has a chronic right shoulder injury and he hasn't been able practice every day.
Also, the Terps' top offensive lineman, junior center Melvin Fowler has been playing all season with various bumps and bruises, and starting left tackle Tim Howard "got nicked up" in practice Wednesday. Left guard Todd Wike is the only starter who hasn't been hurt this season.
"The good news is that none of these injuries are major," Vanderlinden said. "The bad news is that we can't really practice as hard as we need to on the offensive line."
That's why Vanderlinden will try once again this week to give two redshirt freshmen, right guard Lamar Bryant and left tackle Eric Dumas, a significant amount of playing time.
"I thought we were going to do that last week," Vanderlinden said. "But it didn't happen."