COLLEGE PARK - Maryland's season of uncertainty got a strong dose of stability Thursday night with a 27-17 win over Virginia. Not only did the Terps remain in contention for a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference title, but they also all but guaranteed themselves a trip to a postseason bowl for the third straight year.
That hasn't happened since the 1983, '84 and '85 seasons, which is long enough ago that one of those bowls - the Cherry Bowl ('85) - no longer exists.
"I thought it was going to take seven wins to get to a bowl," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen. "Now, I don't know what bowl we'll go to, but I think the focus now for me is where we're going to finish in the conference. ... I can tell you that with our exams and everything, playing around New Year's is a lot better schedule for me."
With a 4-2 record in the ACC, good enough for second place with two games remaining, Maryland will probably end up in either the Gator Bowl (Jan. 1), Peach Bowl (Jan. 2) or Tangerine Bowl (Dec. 22). If the Terps defeat both North Carolina State and Wake Forest, the Gator Bowl seems like a likely possibility. If Maryland loses one of those games, then the Peach and the Tangerine come into play.
Bowl game projections, though, are a guessing game at best, even sometimes down to the last day of the regular season. The ACC champion is guaranteed a spot in one of the four Bowl Championship Series games - Orange, Sugar, Fiesta or Rose - and Florida State, with a 6-1 league record, has all but locked it up.
The Seminoles could finish tied with either N.C. State (4-2) or Maryland, but the Seminoles defeated the Terps already in the regular season, and head-to-head matchups are the first tiebreaker used to determine which team goes to the BCS. If N.C. State wins its final two games against Maryland and Florida State, the Wolfpack would still need to be within five spots of Florida State in the BCS standings to get the BCS invitation. Florida State is 13th, and N.C. State is outside the Top 25.
The ACC, however, has a loose set of criteria with regard to its other five bowl selections, meaning teams with the best records don't always get invited to the most prestigious bowls.
Last season, both Maryland and Virginia went 6-2 in the conference, but the Gator Bowl - which gets the first choice after the BCS team is selected - bypassed them both and instead invited N.C. State, with a 5-3 record. Maryland was somewhat miffed, having defeated the Wolfpack, 24-21, in the regular season. Virginia felt equally slighted when the Peach Bowl - which gets the second pick - decided it wanted Maryland, even though the Cavaliers beat the Terps, 48-13, during the season.
"Things like that are decisions that are taken out of our hands," Friedgen said. "I do kid [Gator Bowl president] Rick Catlett about it, and, hopefully, if that happens again, they won't pass on us. But we had a fantastic time at the Peach Bowl. It wouldn't bother me a bit to go back to the Peach Bowl."
Though a good record is important, bowl committees want teams people will tune in to watch on television, and they want teams with a fan base that will travel and spend money in the host city.
Last year, Maryland brought 17,000 fans to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. That hardly compared with the 35,000 Tennessee fans who showed up, but it was enough to make the Peach Bowl feel like it had made the good choice in Maryland.
"Maryland exceeded all of our expectations," said Albert Tarica, a member of the Peach Bowl executive committee. "Our average is about 19,000 [fans]."
Tarica said the Peach Bowl wouldn't have a problem with picking Maryland two years in a row if the matchup is right.
"We've had teams two years in a row in the past, and it doesn't affect us," Tarica said.
With its Big East ties, the Gator Bowl could be the most intriguing matchup for Maryland, because it might give Terps fans a look at the future of the ACC. If Pittsburgh or West Virginia gets the Big East's automatic bid in the BCS, then Maryland would have a good chance of facing Miami or Virginia Tech.
"We definitely think favorably when we think of Maryland," said Gator Bowl chairman-elect Bob Smith. "We feel good about the teams that we have to choose from. Maryland is one of several options for us, and we're weighing the pros and cons."
If Maryland drops one or both of its final two games (N.C. State and Wake Forest), then the Tangerine Bowl - which gets the third pick - becomes a possibility. Though Maryland's fans would have to travel farther than any ACC team to get to Orlando, that doesn't bother Matthew Sign, the Tangerine Bowl director.
"You want a team on the upswing, and certainly Maryland's whole entire program is on the upswing," Sign said. "I know Coach Friedgen likes coming down to Florida, and certainly they'd be a team we'd love to have."