If there was a reason to believe DJ Durkin could take a fragile Maryland team to the postseason in his first season at the helm, it was because of scheduling.
Despite the hard-knock life in the B1G East, the Terrapins had a well-paved pathway through the first third of the year. Howard, FIU, UCF, a bye week and Purdue occupied the first five weeks of the season and Maryland was able to get through the stretch with a 4-0 mark.
Wins over an unimpressive Michigan State and Rutgers to close out the year got the Terps to 6-6 and bowl eligibility even through a tough slate within the division.
Maryland is hoping to build on that momentum. With a few big contributors returning (Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III to name a few) and the B1G’s fourth-best recruiting class coming in, Durkin’s team should be noticeably improved in 2017.
But if there’s one thing that will keep the Terrapins from back-to-back bowl bids, it’s scheduling.
It begins with a road trip to Austin to battle Texas, who’s already a preseason top 25 team according to ESPN, with the hiring of Tom Herman and 18 returning starters. The season ends in College Park, but against a Penn State team that is an early favorite to reclaim the B1G title and make a push for the College Football Playoff.
Those are just the bookends. The 10 games in-between are just as grueling.
Here’s a glimpse of what Maryland faces this fall:
|Date||Opponent||2016 Record||2016 Bowl Bid|
|Sept. 2||at Texas||5-7||No|
|Sept. 30||at Minnesota||9-4||Yes|
|Oct. 7||at Ohio State||11-2||Yes|
|Oct. 21||at Wisconsin||11-3||Yes|
|Nov. 4||at Rutgers||2-10||No|
|Nov. 18||at Michigan State||3-9||No|
|Nov. 25||Penn State||11-3||Yes|
According to ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index (FPI) poll, Maryland will play five teams ranked in the top 25: Ohio State (No. 1), Penn State (No. 8), Wisconsin (No. 10), Michigan (No. 18) and Texas (No. 24). Last year, the Terps went 0-3 against ranked opponents, being outscored 149-13 in the three games.
After the Sept. 9 matchup against FCS foe Towson, the Terrapins will have six-straight contests against teams that earned a bowl bid in 2016. They won’t have back-to-back home games once B1G play starts.
The B1G East itself is a challenge, and Maryland has to live with that struggle every year. But the cross-division match-ups really make this year especially tough. Along with B1G West champion Wisconsin, the Terrapins also have to battle Minnesota and Northwestern, arguably the two biggest threats to the Badgers in the division.
Games against Towson and Rutgers look like the only sure-bets at this point.
Athlon Sports has ranked that schedule as the toughest in college football – at least in this way-too-early scenario. Regardless of where it stands in the national scope, it’s a huge obstacle for Durkin in the quest for consecutive bowl appearances.
Maryland’s schedule is reminiscent of the one that burdened Wisconsin in 2016, opening the year with LSU before beginning conference play a few weeks later against Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State. It was a grind that was predicted to doom the Badgers’ season before it even began.
Thanks to an overpowering defense, Wisconsin steered through its schedule better than an automated navigational system. The Badgers finished the regular season 10-2 and earned a berth in the B1G Championship.
While the rigor of the Terrapins’ schedule may be on the same level as Wisconsin’s, the scenario is a little different. Actually, it’s a lot different. Durkin is trying to build that winning culture that the Badgers have already established. Missing the postseason would feel like a step in the wrong direction.
Considering the strength of schedule, it’s quite possible that Maryland misses a second-straight bowl appearance despite having a team that’s leaps and bounds ahead of where it was a season ago.
Success for Durkin and the Terrapins might have to be measured by a different barometer in 2017.