EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Recent fortunes would seemingly make Maryland the favorite against Notre Dame in tonight's Kickoff Classic.
So why are the Terrapins two-point underdogs?
It could be that the Terps - ranked No. 21 this year after a 10-2 season last year - haven't named a quarterback, recently lost their star tailback and are wondering how their best defensive player's back will hold up after surgery.
It could be that unranked Notre Dame - 5-6 last season - only appears to be a has-been program, usually following a mediocre season with a nine- or 10-win season.
Or, it could be Maryland's recent history before 2001, something the Terps don't want to repeat once the game kicks off at 8, in front of 80,000 and a national television audience.
"We still have to prove ourselves from last year," Maryland punter Brooks Barnard said. "To be able to beat Notre Dame with the history it has, it would get this program in the right direction and start this season off right."
Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen backed the idea - proposed by athletic director Debbie Yow - of putting his team in the Kickoff Classic back in early 2001, months after he got the job.
At the time, the hope was by now, Maryland would have come off a season of six or seven wins and a match against Notre Dame - a Fiesta Bowl participant after the 2000 season - would give exposure to a program on the rise.
"I thought it would be a very good thing for our program, kind of pointed in the direction that our program would like to go," Friedgen said. "A lot has happened since then. It's probably taken on more significance now than what it was at the time we got into this."
Maryland spent the latter half of the 2001 season in the top 15 en route to winning the Atlantic Coast Conference title. Friedgen earned national Coach of the Year honors, the now-injured Bruce Perry was considered one of the nation's top tailbacks and linebacker E.J. Henderson was considered one of the best players in college football.
Now that the Terps have made names for themselves, tonight's game represents a key point in the struggle to enhance that reputation, even against a program that has taken some hits over the past 18 months. In short, last year's losing season was Notre Dame's second in the past three years and then-coach Bob Davie was fired. George O'Leary left Georgia Tech to replace Davie, then confessed to submitting a false resume and resigned before the school finally hired Tyrone Willingham from Stanford.
On top of that, the Irish dismissed three players on sexual assault charges, kicked off another for academic reasons, and had two players on the depth chart who decided to transfer.
And yet, Notre Dame usually bounces back from its so-so seasons. Nine wins in 2000 after five the year before, nine in 1998 after seven in 1997, raising the possibility that the Irish could be dangerous, particularly with a new coach.
"I think it's a new start with Willingham and his staff coming in," Notre Dame senior receiver Arnaz Battle said.
The game also represents the first for Henderson since he underwent back surgery in April. The injury, which probably kept him out of the NFL draft after an All-American campaign in 2001, cost him spring drills and hitting in the first week of fall camp.
But he participated in full contact drills this month and was said to have looked similar to last year's form in practices. Henderson said he hasn't been as anxious for any game since his first start against Florida State in '99.
"I know there aren't any butterflies yet, but I know they're going to come," said Henderson.
Friedgen's greatest concern comes in the backfield. While fullbacks Chad Killian and James Lynch both have plenty of experience, Perry's groin injury leaves the Terps with little experience at tailback. Jason Crawford ran only 36 times last year, while Mario Merrills sat out and waited to begin his eligibility this year. Chris Downs (four carries in 2001) is also expected to play.
Quarterback is another concern. While Scott McBrien played behind center against Notre Dame while at West Virginia, and Chris Kelley hasn't played a game at any level since 1999, the coach said his players know who the starter is, but he won't make it public until tonight.
Opponent:Notre Dame in Kickoff Classic
Site:Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
TV/Radio:Ch. 2/WIYY (97.9 FM)
Line:Notre Dame by 2