Not far from M&T Bank Stadium, where the Maryland Terrapins will open the college football season against Navy next week, drivers headed out of downtown Baltimore are greeted by a large billboard bearing a Terps football helmet and this year's promotional slogan.
"Be There For The Comeback!"
There is nothing cryptic about it. The Terps are coming off a 2-10 disaster of a 2009 season and it would appear there is nowhere to go but back up for Ralph Friedgen's program, but the marketing campaign says a lot more than that.
It speaks to the fan base, which has dwindled of late like that of a certain struggling Major League Baseball franchise that plays a few hundred yards from the aforementioned billboard. It also speaks to the program, which has gone from a string of 10-win seasons early in the Friedgen era to the point where Navy is the big dog in next week's fight.
In other words, there had better be a comeback or the Friedgen era might soon be over.
Friedgen obviously knows all this, but he's determined not to get caught up in trying to overcome last year. This season is a big enough challenge all by itself.
"I kind of take the approach of just look at the next game,'' Friedgen said. "That's kind of how I've been my whole life. If you do that, things will usually turn out okay for yourself. When you start looking too far ahead is when you get in trouble."
Never has that been more true for the Terps, who will enter their Labor Day showdown with the Midshipmen as a decided underdog. That would have been hard to imagine when the Fridge was flying high a few seasons ago, but it might actually be a good thing under the circumstances.
The Terps are looking for redemption, and that's not something that comes with a home victory over Morgan State or Florida International. But an upset victory over Navy would position Maryland to get off to a solid start, with early season home games against the Bears, FIU and Duke wrapped around one scary road trip to West Virginia.
It won't be easy, of course. The Maryland offense has been decimated by injuries at the tight end position and the defense must find a way to solve Navy's triple-option offense, which is the college football equivalent of trying to eat soup with a fork. If they succeed, however, they should be able to buy some time to get healthy.
"I think good things will happen if we get going,'' Friedgen said. "If we can get some confidence, we can be pretty good. We have more team speed on defense. We've got a couple guys like Isaiah Ross I'd like to get back and things like that, but I think we'll be faster on defense than what we've been."
"If we can just hang in there and find a way to win a game or two and wait for those guys to get back, that would be a big help to us."
Still, one question looms over this team like that billboard looms over I-395. How big a comeback will be big enough?
Friedgen's contract runs through the 2011 season, but it's difficult to tell whether he has one year or two to turn the team around. Though former athletic director Debbie Yow made it pretty clear before she left that Fridge's future was dependent on a winning season in 2010, we'll have to wait for the new AD to be introduced to get a better sense of the administration's sense of urgency.
In the meantime, Friedgen is standing at the intersection of now and then. He needs more than one year to rebuild the program, but the Terps need a dynamic upturn in 2010 to assure that he'll get the chance to finish the job.
If the bar is set above .500, it's going to be very tough with a grueling stretch of four ACC road games in a span of five weeks in the middle of the season, but Friedgen thinks the Terps have the potential to take a big step up.
"I'd like to look at it that way,'' Friedgen said. "I have a lot of faith in these kids. I really think we're still a very young team. We only have 12 seniors. I think the future's really bright here. With another good recruiting class, I think we have a chance to be good for some time."
That sounds nice, but with season ticket sales in steep decline (still under 20,000 at last count) and the Terps coming off one of their worst seasons in history, time is not on his side.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and with Brett Hollander on Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. Also, check out his blog "The Schmuck Stops Here" at http://www.baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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