On Saturday, D.J. Durkin and his Maryland Terrapins return to the gridiron. However, instead of playing the cupcake opening games they’re used to (James Madison, Richmond, Howard from 2014-2016), they travel to No. 23 Texas.
They do so coming off a 6-7 season where they outperformed most expectations. A first-year head coach in Durkin, no viable, consistent option at quarterback and a porous defense managed to make a bowl game.
Even so, many project the Terps to, despite being much-improved, have a worse record in 2017.
It makes sense because their schedule is that much harder, beginning with the Longhorns and eventually getting to Big Ten East behemoths Ohio State, Michigan, then Penn State on the final weekend. No cupcakes there.
The opener with Texas finally gives the Terps a chance to show something on a national stage against a ranked non-conference opponent. Tom Herman is trying to resurrect a program that fell under Mack Brown then floundered under Charlie Strong. Perhaps their ranking is based primarily on reputation, both of the program and Herman, but quarterback Shane Buechele and Co. should be much improved.
That’s why it’s such a big one for Maryland.
If the Terps lose, regardless of keeping it close, they likely don’t reach a bowl game. Even if they win, it’s still a tall task. Towson is the only seemingly automatic victory on the schedule. Central Florida, Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers are more winnable, while the rest are fair to consider upsets. A win over the Longhorns could surely springboard the Terps toward a better result.
The main question looms at quarterback. Tyrrell Pigrome was named the starter, and while freshman Kasim Hill looks like a real talent, the Maryland coaches were adamant they plan to use just one quarterback in Austin. Pigrome is a great runner and electrified at times in limited duty, but showed some serious deficiencies in the passing game. All signs point to rapid improvement this summer, but the Terps will really need that to be true. They faltered at the end of 2016 because they became one-dimensional. Defenses zoned in on the run and it became ineffective.
If Pigrome steps up, especially on the national stage, there is plenty of reason for optimism in College Park. We know the backfield will be the staple of the offense. We know D.J. Moore is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten. We know that, under a defensive mind in Durkin, that side of the ball will improve with more experience in the system after a horrendous 2016.
This all needs to show against Texas.
Again, a win in Austin guarantees nothing moving forward. Maryland still has plenty of hills to climb en route to improvement from last season. However, there is no doubt that it’d be a good start.