“How about that?” he asked with a smile. “Taking the rein from the SEC. We are the national champions in this conference. That’s important to me because teams do need to respect the ACC more. We had 11 teams with a winning record last year, and that’s good. We have competition here. We have people getting drafted everywhere from this conference. I believe that Florida State, we helped gain that respect, and hopefully we can continue that.”
In his quest to spread the ACC gospel, he may have an unlikely ally in the form of Maryland, a team that he and his teammates pummeled 63-0 last season. The Terrapins are no longer in the ACC, but their entry into the Big Ten (alongside power conference doormat Rutgers) has been greeted in the Midwest with all the enthusiasm of a doctor visit thanks in part to their previous conference affiliation. Recent history has shown those opinions can be changed quickly, though. A successful season in the Big Ten may help erase those perceptions in the same way that the success of Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC lent some revisionist credit to the Big 12 and also made a money grab by the SEC appear to be a shrewd move.
With Ohio State opening against the tricky triple option of Navy, facing ACC contender Virginia Tech at home, hitting the road for night games at Penn State and Michigan State (both of whom will be coming off bye weeks) and taking on Michigan in a rivalry where nothing comes easy, few have mentioned Maryland as a game that could prove difficult for head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. The Terrapins have a believer in longtime college football analyst Phil Steele, though.
“I think Maryland is going to be one of those under-the-radar teams,” he told BuckeyeSports.com. “It’s on the road, which makes things a little more difficult. It’s the first time Ohio State has gone to Byrd Stadium and played there, and it’s a little bit of a trap game for Ohio State.”
Maryland hasn’t exactly blown away the competition during head coach Randy Edsall’s first three years, but Steele points to the incredible run of injuries that the squad has faced as evidence that the 13-24 record from 2011-13 could be deceiving. After a 2-10 first year, Edsall lost five quarterbacks in 2012 and finished the season with a true freshman linebacker taking snaps under center. The Terps started 5-1 last year, but injuries to their starting quarterback, running back and two best receivers again derailed the season as they limped to a 7-6 finish.
If the Terrapins can stay healthy, they boast a legitimate weapon with a two-headed monster at receiver. Both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long figure to challenge for all-Big Ten spots, and Ohio State’s passing defense has shown promise of improvement with new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash but is thus far unproven on the field. Michigan State is the game that every Buckeye fan has circled on his or her calendar, but Steele has Maryland listed as the team other than the Spartans most likely to give OSU trouble.
“Maryland’s a surprising test this year because I think if Maryland’s got the receivers healthy and can actually stay healthy, that’s a dangerous tricky spot,” Steele said. “It’s the one game other than Michigan State that I’ve got as the closest for Ohio State as far as margin of victory goes. That’s a very tricky game, but at least Ohio State has a bye the next week. With tests like that, I think they’ll be able to have a veteran squad in the areas where they’re inexperienced this year by the time Michigan State rolls around.”
Steele is aware that some may not share his pick of Maryland as Ohio State’s trap game, but he warns of ignoring the Terrapins simply of where they came from. In terms of conference strength, his enormous college football preview issue ranks the ACC and Big Ten tied for fourth behind the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12.
“People dismiss them because they come from the ACC and say they have to step up to the level of the Big Ten… no,” he said. “Actually, the ACC is the same level as the Big Ten. Clemson knocked off Ohio State and Florida State won the national title. That’s not a chopped liver league over there. Maryland has just caught no luck injury-wise the last few years. Edsall is building a solid program.”
The first-ever meeting of the programs, which will double as Maryland’s first Big Ten game, will help show how much or how little building remains for Edsall to field a conference contender.