COLLEGE PARK - Two years ago, Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen wanted to raise the expectation level of the program, and maybe no other coach in the school's history has done it so quickly - winning an Atlantic Coast Conference title and playing in the Orange Bowl two seasons ago and then upsetting Tennessee in the Peach Bowl last season.
Fans are now clamoring about the Terps' need to upgrade their schedule and get rid of three so-called breathers in Northern Illinois, The Citadel and Eastern Michigan, and even West Virginia.
But, at this time, that would be a major mistake. Despite the recent success, Maryland is still years from being a major player on the national championship scene. The Terps need to stay their present course until they add more blue-chip recruits and depth.
Only then will they be able to sustain a schedule that could include the likes of Penn State, Michigan and Miami, which were a regular part of their schedules in the mid-1980s.
This is a program that is still growing and waiting to exhale. There is a reason football coaches are given four-, five- and six-year contracts.
"We are building things," said Friedgen, whose team began spring practice Wednesday. "Right now, we have 97 guys in spring practice. When we got here, we didn't have 97 guys in fall practice. Yes, we're getting better, and if we can have another good recruiting year, yeah, I think we might have some real legitimate shot at that [a national championship].
"I'll know when we're there," he said. "Don't think I'm trying to shirk my responsibility. I look forward to the day when we can get to the point. Trust me. We have more potential than we've had the past two years, but we're not there yet."
The Terps are becoming a victim of their own success. They finished 10-2 in 2001 and 11-3 last season after nearly 15 years of losing with coaches Joe Krivak, Mark Duffner and Ron Vanderlinden. But if you take a closer look, you will see a program that can't yet handle a demanding schedule. In the Peach Bowl, Maryland had to replace starting defensive lineman Randy Starks with a walk-on and former lacrosse player.
Another defensive lineman used in the regular rotation in that game had never played in a college game.
Does that happen at Miami or Florida?
Maryland may have beaten Tennessee, 30-3, but that was perhaps the worst Volunteers team in the past decade. Some fans may have forgotten that Florida embarrassed the Terps, 56-23, in the 2002 Orange Bowl.
They aren't ready to face that kind of competition weekly. Not yet. Physically, they would get pounded.
"Two keys are retention and depth," Friedgen said. "We have 24 seniors, and 23 out of 24 are graduating, 11 in May, nine in January and three next spring. Not only are we doing in on the football field, but also in the classroom.
"That all goes hand in hand. The reason our numbers are up is because we're doing better academically. The more kids in your program, the more they are working, the more depth you're adding and the better you get. If a lineman leaves our program after two years of getting him ready, that really hurts this program, particularly at this time."
So excuse Friedgen if he is a little cautious about whom he plays.
He points out he has agreed to play Air Force in the future, but he is waiting for an answer from the Falcons. Penn State has been in touch with Maryland officials, but the Nittany Lions want Maryland to play two games in Happy Valley before playing the third in College Park.
Friedgen also noted he agreed to play Notre Dame within two weeks of taking the job at Maryland, a game the Terps lost, 22-0, at the beginning of last season.
"One problem is: How many teams want to come play us at Byrd Stadium?" Friedgen said. "We're 13-1 at home in the last two years. We finally made a breakthrough with Navy, which could develop into a nice in-state rivalry that could make money with very little overhead.
"We've got to go to Northern Illinois, go to Eastern Michigan to play this year, but to get people to come here, we've got to give them a two-for-one. We're not good enough yet where we can have people come in and not return them. Penn State wants to play us two-for-one, but I'm not going to go up there and play them two times and have them come here once. That's a sucker's bet."
Eight of Maryland's 12 games are in the conference. That in itself causes the Terps to lose votes in polls, because ACC football isn't considered very strong.
"We played nine teams that went to bowl games last year," he said. "The ACC is a pretty tough football conference with the emergence of N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia. If you don't believe me, ask Oregon State or Purdue, which Wake Forest beat. Our football in the ACC is better than the basketball."
Actually Maryland has only one more "breather" than most top Division I-A teams, which have at least one or two.