COLLEGE PARK - For those on the Maryland football team, making doubters eat crow is low on the list of joys associated with their success, but that doesn't make it insignificant.
Linebacker Aaron Thompson remembers a stinging remark from a friend during dinner. Quarterback Shaun Hill smiles mischievously when recalling perceived jabs from a local columnist after a loss this season.
So slights are nothing new for the Terrapins, newcomers to the national stage who find themselves 18-point underdogs against former national title contender Florida in next month's Orange Bowl.
As a matter of fact, there's a certain comfort in being lightly regarded, said punter Brooks Barnard, whose grandparents in Florida have been relaying negative commentary about the Terps back to him.
"We're already where we want to be," Barnard said. "Papers are already saying we're going to get blown out by Florida, `It's not even going to be a game,' this and that. That's something we've heard all year. Every single game, we're going to lose."
Long before beat writers in the Atlantic Coast Conference picked Maryland to finish seventh in the conference, the players had heard all about how good they weren't going to be. They often heard this from friends who were still playing football themselves, some on teams accustomed to bowl trips.
Thompson, a senior from Mount St. Joseph, remembers a trip to Catonsville for pizza last winter, accompanied by old high school buddies. He sounded off with his yearly prediction of success for the Terps, only to be shot down by one of the guys in the group.
"Y'all never going to a bowl game," the friend retorted.
It seemed like a reality check at the time; Maryland's last bowl had come in 1990. Thompson said the friend felt like he needed to say it, but that didn't stop the memory from resurfacing once his team started winning.
"After that sixth win," said Thompson, recalling when his friend's comments came to mind. "He'd laugh about it, then he follows up with, `I knew y'all were going to do it all along.' OK."
Hill said the team hasn't been able to see many national pre-game shows, so he really doesn't know if observers have made statements doubting Maryland or not.
He does, however, bristle at the thought of one columnist who wrote of the talent gap between the Terps and Florida State after a loss in which Seminoles receivers staged a track meet through Maryland's pass defense.
The gap turned out to be an insufficient barrier to the school's first league title since 1985.
"How's he feeling? I'd like to talk to him," Hill said. "Is he on the bandwagon now?"
Barnard said he now gets instant computer messages from friends who used to ask, semi-mockingly, if his team would ever reach .500. Notes of congratulations began flooding in as soon as Maryland started moving up the national rankings.
"It makes it sweeter for them to swallow their own words," Barnard said.
But while tickets for the team's Orange Bowl trip disappear, skepticism still lingers about the team's chances in the Jan. 2 game.
Since Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990, Florida has finished in the Top 10 nine times. The Gators, who began the season ranked No. 1, feature a troika of offensive weapons in Heisman runner-up and quarterback Rex Grossman, tailback Earnest Graham (who may return from a sprained knee injury) and receiver Jabar Gaffney.
In contrast, the Terps' pass into rarified air is newly laminated. Despite the team's success and the presence of players such as E.J. Henderson and Bruce Perry, the fact that their season did not merit discussion in the national title picture indicates that a case needs making outside the ACC, though that's not the goal.
Said Hill: "We're going down to win a football game, and if it just so happens that we prove to people that we are a real team, then so be it. But that's not our focus."
NOTES: With Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary leaving for Notre Dame, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, formerly Tech's offensive coordinator, immediately came up as a possible successor. "I know he likes Georgia Tech, make no bones about it," O'Leary told the Associated Press. "To get him would be a great coup."
Asked about Tech, Friedgen said: "I'm focusing on the job at hand. Right now, I'm at Maryland and I have a lot of things on my plate, so I'm not worrying about that right now." ...
Friedgen, who led Maryland to a 10-1 record and the ACC title, was selected the Football News Coach of the Year over finalists Larry Coker of Miami (Fla.) and Gary Crowton of Brigham Young.
Maryland quarterback Shaun Hill will answer readers' questions on SunSpot today, and his responses will be posted tomorrow. To submit a question, log on to: http://www.sunspot.net/hill