New muscle in ACC means UM must bulk up

September 05, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- Atlantic Coast Conference president John Swofford and the league's athletic directors carried out their bold expansion plan with a goal of making their league's football side more prestigious and profitable.

They surely succeeded with the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech this year and Boston College starting next year. The ACC is going to be as tough as any football conference anywhere.

But the bill for the controversial expansion must now be paid by programs such as Maryland's that have toiled away in the ACC since the 1950s.

They have a choice: Get better or get left behind.

There's no room for mediocrity in the ACC anymore.

The league's new world order was in the background last night as Ralph Friedgen's Terrapins started 2004 with a jittery victory at Byrd Stadium, overcoming numerous mistakes and a late rally to defeat Northern Illinois, 23-20, and avenge last year's opening-night loss.

The Terps are now 32-8 under Friedgen, who has coached them out of the darkness of the 1990s and into the Top 20 with successive trips to the Orange, Peach and Gator bowls.

Friedgen has made the Terps respectable bordering on formidable, which is an achievement, and he has pledged to do even better, which is admirable.

But make no mistake, gains are about to become harder to make.

With Miami, a national power, joining Florida State at the top of the league, third place becomes the realistic goal for everyone else. That's depressing.

Competing with Virginia Tech and Boston College won't make life easier, either. Tech is a top program under coach Frank Beamer. BC is never an easy out.

The coaches at North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson and the other holdover ACC schools haven't publicly complained, insisting they're thrilled about the league's improvement, eager for the challenge, yadda, yadda.

But you can almost hear them privately complaining that none of the league's big shots ever asked them whether it made sense to expand so boldly, with some of college football's real elites.

Adding Miami to the schedule might be a boon for the league's financial ledgers, but it's a hassle for the coaches.

The people in business clothes made life harder for the guys with clipboards and headsets.

Yes, it's probably true the higher bar will raise everyone else's game over time. Look at what has happened in men's international basketball since the unbeatable Dream Team debuted in 1992. The rest of the world has caught up with the United States.

On the other hand, that hasn't happened in ACC football since superpower Florida State's arrival in 1992. The Seminoles are 90-6 against league opponents.

Recruiting the same players in talent-rich Florida, where even the slow guys are fast, Miami should experience similar success.

That leaves the Terps and their brothers in the ACC's middle class and upper-middle class in a tough spot.

They can dream about rising to the level of Miami and Florida State, but that's a tall order.

It might happen now and then, but consistently?

A more realistic goal is being the best of the rest.

The Terps are positioned well for that, having generated real momentum under Friedgen, a fine coach who just signed a new contract. Their recruiting is vastly improved, and the eighth-largest crowd in school history attended last night's game. Friedgen's passion is paying off.

The big crowd saw several positive signs last night: a running game that generated 198 yards, the ever-dependable kicking of Nick Novak, and perhaps most significantly, the emergence of sophomore quarterback Joel Statham.

Yes, Statham was mistake-prone, losing three fumbles and throwing an interception. But most of the mistakes were creditable to inexperience, and Statham, showing maturity, didn't crumble in their wake. To the contrary, he came back and contributed his share of big plays.

"Give him credit. A lot of guys would have packed it in," Friedgen said.

Statham has confidence, a good arm and lots of potential. He's a keeper.

The team as a whole? It might be Friedgen's first at Maryland that doesn't win 10 games. The young Terps tried to give away the game in the final minutes last night to a Northern Illinois team using its backup quarterback. Friedgen wasn't blowing smoke when he said the Terps were lucky to win.

"I think we have a chance to be a good team as we grow," Friedgen said. "But I think it's real important to grow early in the season. With our [tough later schedule], we had better grow by then or we're going to be in trouble."

A road game at Virginia Tech is on the schedule this year. Next year brings a matchup with Miami. Life in the ACC is getting harder.

Count on the Terps to continue to grow, which is a lot more interesting than what they were doing before Friedgen arrived.

But measuring that growth could become a challenge.

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