USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Every team deals with injuries, that constant and unpredictable nuisance of nuisances, but Maryland lives with injuries, year after year, come rain, shine or Florida State.
The boiling point came in last November's game with Virginia Tech, when the Terrapins' injury report ran longer than the Magna Carta: 15 players – including all-world wide receiver Stefon Diggs and running mate Deon Long – were listed as either Out or Out for the season, essentially robbing Randy Edsall's third team of the depth needed to make a serious charge into the top half of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
So long, ACC; hello, Big Ten. Like Rutgers, the Terps prepare for a new conference with a slight sense of unease – the new kid on the first day of school, basically. Unlike Rutgers, however, Maryland has the talent and scheme needed to make some immediate noise in this new league, perhaps vaulting into a top-three spot in the East Division.
But that's only if the Terps can stay healthy. December's bowl loss to Marshall featured eight freshmen and sophomores in starting roles on offense, with another four on defense. Another fourteen freshmen and sophomores occupied spots on the two-deep. That's not going to fly against the Buckeyes, Spartans and Wolverines, among others.
Has Maryland tried stretching? Staying hydrated? Gatorade? Shoulder pads? Ace bandages? Hypnotism? It's time to pull out all the stops, Terps, because this is going to go one of two ways: Maryland stays healthy and competes, or Maryland struggles with injuries and disappoints.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
If Maryland can form a competent pass rush this defense should again rank among the top six in the ACC. To me, the combination of an improved offense and a credible defense, albeit one with some issues, paints Maryland as a definite bowl team in 2013.
In a nutshell: Not an overly successful season – only one notable victory – but another year of improvement under Edsall and his staff, culminating in the program's first bowl bid since 2010. It was never easy: Maryland had to deal with injuries, as noted, and it took all this specific team had in the tank to pull out seven wins during the regular season. Yet there were several bright spots, including the play of this offense; the Terps cracked the 3,000-yard mark in passing for the first time since 1993, cracked the 5,000-yard mark in total offense and scored 30 or more points five times, winning each game. That the Terps' offense succeeded despite injuries – without Diggs, for example – is a credit to coordinator Mike Locksley, who has successfully rehabilitated his reputation after a historically laughable run at New Mexico. All told, Maryland took a clear step forward after Edsall's middling start.
High point: Beating Virginia Tech on Nov. 14 – despite all those injuries listed above.
Low point: That 63-0 loss to Florida State on the heels of a 4-0 start. A total mismatch.
Tidbit: Maryland is a combined 4-44-1 against teams currently in the Big Ten. The four wins: Purdue in 2006, Minnesota in 1977, Penn State in 1961 and Michigan State in 1950. Now, the losses: Maryland is 1-35-1 against the Nittany Lions, 1-4 against the Spartans, 0-3 against Michigan and 0-2 against Indiana.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
NBA players born in Baltimore
1. Gene Shue
2. Sam Cassell
3. Rudy Gay
4. Reggie Lewis
5. Muggsy Bogues
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: An extra season of eligibility for quarterback C.J. Brown (2,242 yards and 13 touchdowns) hands Maryland the sort of under-center continuity lacking at this program for the better part of a decade. It's difficult to overstate just what that means for this offense: Brown isn't merely experienced, as if that's not enough, and he's not just productive, as if we needed more – Brown is experienced, productive, fairly steady and occasionally explosive, a combination of assets that gives the Terps a dual-threat contributor at a position of crucial need. Better yet, there's reason to think Brown is ready to assume an even larger role in this offense; he'll never be a slinger, but after becoming the first quarterback in program history to total 2,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing in a single season, perhaps a healthier receiver corps leads to an uptick in pass-game production. He'll certainly have the targets at his disposal.
At the very least, consider Maryland's situation in simple terms: Brown gives the Terps a returning starter at quarterback. Why is that important? Because so does every other Big Ten team on Maryland's schedule, if we count Nate Sudfeld at Indiana – all eight opponents have an experienced hand at the controls, so the Terps are on an even playing field. And as noted, it's safe to assume Brown will improve his general consistency, perhaps avoiding a Wake Forest-like stinker – man, that was terrible – while taking advantage of a healthier crop of receivers. He's not an all-conference starter, more like a middle-of-the-road guy in the Big Ten, but Brown is a perfectly adequate solution under center. I do think Edsall and Locksley will try to get Caleb Rowe involved to build toward 2015.
I can understand some of the reservations regarding this backfield, which is certainly deep – I see four backs in the rotation – but does lack a degree of explosiveness and big-play potential. But seeing that we should include Brown's run-game production in the mix, Maryland won't struggle for fresh legs: Wes Brown returns, for one, and joins holdovers Brandon Ross (776 yards), Albert Reid (294 yards), Jacquille Veii (146 yards) and Joe Riddle in giving Locksley a number of different options. My guess – and it's a logical one – is that Ross will start as the primary back, as he was a year ago, but Wes Brown should cut into Reid's touches as he rounds back into form. Yet Maryland's running game as a whole lacks a sense of dangers – and a questionable offensive front doesn't help matters.
And then there's the receiver corps, which is not only the best in the Big Ten but one of the best in all of college football. There are no superlatives left to describe one All-American, so let's keep it simple: Stefon Diggs (34 receptions for 587 yards) is really, really good – so good he strains my vocabulary, so good he would star for every team in the FBS, at times so good he defies explanation. He's really, really good. His running mate is also no slouch: Deon Long (32 for 489) is another five-star talent when healthy, though both he and Diggs missed extensive time a season ago. But these matching absences, while painful, did allow Maryland to lean on junior Levern Jacobs (47 for 640), sophomore Amba Etta (31 for 500) and senior Nigel King (33 for 450), essentially creating the sort of talent, experience and depth unmatched – and unrivaled – in the Big Ten. Get to know these receivers, and Diggs in particular: Maryland found itself a great one.
Defense: I see depth as a noteworthy issue nearly throughout Maryland's defense, though perhaps a half-dozen members of February's class could step in and solidify the second tier of the two-deep with a solid offseason and fall camp. Now, don't confuse my concern about depth with any significant issues with the starting lineup: Maryland's pretty talented, in fact, and has a number of returning starters and contributors ready to make some noise in the Big Ten. Take senior end Andre Monroe (42 tackles, 9.5 sacks), for example, a converted tackle who brings jaw-dropping production to the edge of the Terps' three-lineman front. Likewise, Maryland feels secure in junior end Quinton Jefferson (47 tackles, 7.5 for loss) and the nose-tackle duo of Darius Kilgo and Keith Bowers – creating a solid top four, basically. But depth on the nose is nonexistent with Nate Clarke's injury-caused retirement, and Roman Braglio is the only reserve end with any degree of proven production – and while he's promising, Maryland needs several redshirt freshmen to step forward and provide meaningful snaps behind the top pair.
When the dust clears, Maryland should start four seniors at linebackers. But it could be only two upperclassmen, I'd say: Alex Twine (49 tackles), a junior, could conceivably wrestle the strong side away from Matt Robinson (73 tackles, 10.0 for loss) – a bit of a long shot – and sophomore Yannick Ngakoue could move ahead of Yannick Cudjoe-Virgil on the weak side. The latter pair must replace edge-rushing menace Marcus Whitfield, and that's a tall order; as such, Maryland's underrated pass rush could take a hit. But the inside is secure: L.A. Goree (76 tackles) and Cole Farrand (84 tackles) are supremely consistent, if not more so, and Goree is a major asset as an every-down contributor. Depth in the middle is young, but the Terps have lassoed some major talent.
The Terps are really banking on incoming freshmen Antwaine Carter, Daniel Ezeagwu and Josh Woods supplying immediate depth at cornerback. Yeah, that's needed: Maryland has a stud in sophomore Will Likely (70 tackles) and a likely second starter in senior Jeremiah Johnson, if healthy, but the rest of the rotation – sophomore Jarrett Ross and juniors Alvin Hill and Undray Clark – simply doesn't inspire any degree of confidence. Maryland was slightly above-average last fall in preventing big plays, a fact that shines well on returning safeties Sean Davis (102 tackles) and Anthony Nixon (60 tackles). Look for senior safety A.J. Hendy (32 tackles) to retain his role as the Terps' fifth defensive back in pass-centered defensive sets.
Special teams: A healthy Diggs doesn't merely change the complexion of Maryland's offense; he also drastically upgrades the Terps' return game, joining Likely in giving this team one of the most electric return pairs in college football. Have I mentioned that Diggs is really, really good? The kicking game is weaker, if only in comparison: Brad Craddock is one of the top two kickers in the Big Ten, I'd say, though punter Nathan Renfro ranks in the conference's bottom half.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: With a new line coach in tow – ex-LSU assistant Greg Studrawa – another round of offseason attrition is already underway: Moise Larose is gone, robbing Maryland of a would-be starter at left tackle, and JUCO transfer Larry Mazyck never made it on campus, taking away a state-sized mauler on the strong side. These losses – one loss, one never-was – will have a profound impact on the Terps' depth, at least, and it's easy to imagine a scenario where Larose and Mazyck teamed up to bookend the line at some during the regular season. It gets worse: Maryland is now thin at tackle, which means the line is thin at guard, since would-be reserves are now stepping up the two-deep … generally speaking, that's never a good situation.
And it's not a good deal at Maryland, but this has become par for the course – not every year, but this happens at Maryland. What's obvious is that the Terps are going to need immediate snaps from incoming freshmen Derwin Gray and Damian Prince, the latter a five-star recruit. I'd say both should be ready to start: Maryland can't really rely on Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn, though both could lend a hand along the interior. Perhaps the only sure thing is center Sal Conaboy, a preseason all-conference contender; he'll be flanked by some combination of Dunn, Silvano Altamirano, Andrew Zeller – a pretty athletic guy, all things considered – and Evan Mulrooney. These are the Terps' options only if Prince and Gray can step right into the lineup, however, and that's a total unknown. Either way, how comfortable could Maryland really feel with two true freshman anchoring the line against Big Ten competition?
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Indiana: Every game in September is crucial for Maryland, which can't afford to dig itself into a hole before taking on Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan – all in a row, by the by, with the Badgers, Nittany Lions and Wolverines away from home. But it's a survivable slate should the Terps open strong, going at least 4-1 in the season's first month and creating some momentum heading into the heart of the program's Big Ten debut. If the Terps are 2-3, however, it's going to be a tough road to bowl eligibility.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: There's no reason to think Maryland won't find a degree of success in its Big Ten debut, not to mention a few reasons – perhaps more than a few – to suggest this team has what it takes to greatly exceed expectations in the tougher of the league's two divisions. There are things to admire about the offense, for starters: Brown's a returning starter, which is huge, and should improve as a thrower; the backfield is deeper than at this point a season ago, with as many as four backs fighting for touches; and the Diggs-led receiver corps is absolutely superb. Yet the offense seems handcuffed by a front that may end up with rookies starting at both tackle spots while scrambling to locate depth nearly across the board. That's an issue, particularly with Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State looming as newfound conference rivals.
The defense has similar issues with proven depth. The interior of the defensive line goes two deep and stops, barring some sort of ready-to-go improvement from two or three sophomores and redshirt freshmen. Another handful of unproven quantities play backup to an impressive starting pair at end. While the Terps should feel confident in what the defense brings to the table at linebacker, I look at the secondary and see little in the way of reliability outside the top five. So we get to the real crux of the issue: Maryland's depth is unimposing, so what happens if this team and program suffers through another rash of injuries?
You have to consider that possibility, because injuries and attrition have become part of Maryland's DNA. If injuries are again a concern, the Terps' talent level and athleticism could be swallowed up by the Big Ten. If not, however, I see the Terps right alongside Penn State as the fourth-best team in the rowdy East Division, not far behind Michigan but a few steps behind the Buckeyes and Spartans. Let's bank on an increased degree of health while questioning a few of the Terps' weaknesses: Maryland's a bowl team, likely ending up in the seven-win range, and could surprise several conference foes with its athleticism at the skill positions.
Dream season: Maryland starts 5-0 before hitting a slight snag, but rebounds to finish 9-3 as first-year members of the Big Ten.
Nightmare season: The Terps notch just one win against Big Ten foes, beating Rutgers in the finale to salvage only a small portion of their preseason goals.
Who's No. 63? Two of this program's last three league losses have come to a program that is no longer a member of its conference.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014