There was certainly plenty to like about University of Maryland's first football season in the Big Ten conference. There was the shootout win against Iowa in College Park, Md., and the landmark road victories against traditional powers Penn State and Michigan. There were the first-team all-conference selections for junior cornerback William Likely and senior kicker Brad Craddock, and the appearance in the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., where the Terps lost to Stanford, 45-21.
By most measures, the Terps' debut in their new conference was a rousing success. The program won seven games for the second consecutive season, marking the first time since 2002-03 that Maryland put together back-to-back winning campaigns. The team's performance earned its leader a new contract, as head coach Randy Edsall inked an extension June 30 that could keep him at Maryland through 2019.
But that is all finished now.
Maryland is no longer the new kid on the block in the Big Ten. The Terps are simply another team in one of the nation's toughest conferences. And for Edsall, whose contract contains a $500,000 buyout, there is still much to prove. The fifth-year head coach has yet to beat a ranked opponent at Maryland (0-10) and is 1-26 during his career against the top 25.
Edsall should have his chance to make a national splash in 2015, as Maryland's schedule will again feature Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State in addition to improved Michigan and Penn State squads. However, he'll have to do so with a roster that lost 26 seniors and 13 starters from last year's 7-6 team. While some of his prized recruits have finally climbed to the top of his depth chart, Edsall must turn talent into victories to show that this is truly a program on the rise.
Here are the five variables that will dictate how the Terps fare in 2015:
1. The Terps will open training camp with a three-way competition at quarterback among Caleb Rowe, graduate transfer Daxx Garman and junior Perry Hills, according to the preseason depth chart released by the team July 30. All three options come with uncertainty. Rowe is returning from a torn ACL; Garman transferred to Maryland during the offseason from Oklahoma State, and Hills hasn't seen significant action since 2012.
"The one thing at our quarterback position, we basically have three guys in Caleb, Daxx and Perry who have won games in a Power Five conference,' Edsall said July 30 at Big Ten media day in Chicago. "So at least we have experience, and it's going to be neat to see the competition unfold here in the preseason.'
The smart money is on Rowe to win the job. Garman was impressive at times last year in the Big 12, but Rowe is the best passer of the bunch. The senior, who connected on 63 percent of his throws in 2014, gives the Terps a downfield passing element that they lacked in past seasons. During the previous few seasons, former quarterback C.J. Brown was hardly hesitant to run, gaining more than 1,600 yards on the ground from 2011-14. As an added bonus, Rowe was granted a medical redshirt this offseason, which will give him eligibility in 2016.
2. Regardless of who ultimately takes the snaps, the Maryland attack is sure to look a lot different than the read-option scheme it has run in recent years. The Terps' offensive line, which returns three starters to go with the highly touted tackle Damian Prince, will have to provide the quarterback time to throw. And once the ball comes out, the Terps' weapons on the outside must make plays.
Maryland had significant turnover at the receiver position, losing Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to the NFL, Marcus Leak and Jacquille Veii to transfer and promising youngster Juwann Winfree to indefinite suspension. Lucky for the Terps, wideout is the position where they could best afford to absorb a hit.
Levern Jacobs returns as the team's top pass-catcher after missing all of the 2014 season due to suspension. The redshirt junior led the injury-plagued Terps in receiving in 2013 with 640 yards on 47 grabs. He is likely to be joined by his younger brother, Taivon, who looked like a budding force a year ago before a knee injury ended his season during the season opener. Juniors Amba Etta-Tawo and Malcolm Culmer also promise to prominently figure into the mix at receiver.
3. Perhaps the most intriguing storyline heading into the season is the defense run by Keith Dudzinski, who replaces Nebraska-bound Brian Stewart as defensive coordinator. Stewart's blitz-heavy 3-4 scheme was torched for 30-plus points seven times in 13 games in 2014. The Terps defense ranked 89th in the nation and 10th in the Big Ten in points allowed (30.2 per game).
The Terps graduated their entire defensive line and all of their starting linebackers save for junior standout Yannick Ngakoue, who has moved to defensive end. Without the massive bodies of Keith Bowers (6-foot-1, 285 pounds) and Darius Kilgo (6-foot-3, 319 pounds), Maryland's new 4-3 scheme will attempt to highlight the speed of its pass rushers and the skill in its secondary.
"We weren't really as successful as we would have liked to be in really, a hybrid 3-4 defense,' Edsall said at Big Ten media day. "We felt that our personnel would be suited better in the 4-3. It gives us a chance to be a little bit more aggressive on defense, which is what we want to be able to do.'
With Ngakoue and the emerging Jesse Aniebonam on either end, the Terps' pass rush could force some shaky throws into a secondary that features first-team all-conference selection Likely and the gifted Sean Davis. There are a lot of new faces on the defensive side of the ball for Maryland, but there is also a lot of talent to work with.
4. Speaking of Likely, the all-everything cornerback and return man is probably Maryland's best player not named Craddock. As he tends to do, Edsall gushed over Likely at Big Ten media day.
"Will is one of those rare and unique young men,' Edsall said. "You know, he's just got some special attributes about him. He might be 5-foot-8, but he plays like he's 6-foot-4. But the thing that Will does, Will brings a presence to the defense and to the secondary, one of hard work, one of preparation, and somebody that's got to find a way to be successful.'
For Maryland to build on its successful Big Ten debut, the Terps need a few more players to emerge as Likely did last season. Ngakoue, who notched 13.5 tackles for a loss last year, and Anienbonam are two players with that sort of potential. Davis, who will play cornerback opposite Likely, has the talent to be that type of player.
On the other side of the ball, the Jacobs brothers and junior running back Wes Brown have the explosiveness to be difference makers on offense. Prince, who will start at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, has the tools to anchor the offensive line. Losing 13 starters leaves a lot of holes to fill, but it also presents plenty of opportunity.
5. Craddock was the only specialist at Big Ten media day for a reason. Not only is he probably the nation's best kicker -- he will look to become the second repeat winner of the Lou Groza Award after converting 18-of-19 extra points last season -- but he is also one of Maryland's leaders, according to Edsall.
"The best leader that we have on our football team is Brad Craddock,' Edsall said. "In 17 years as a head coach, I've never had the leadership that we have right now on our team. And it's all because of Brad Craddock and what he's done.'
That is high praise from a head coach, especially for a kicker. And if true, it couldn't come at a better time as the Terps enter a season with a treacherous in-conference schedule and a roster filled with talented guys a bit short on experience. The Terps proved a season ago that they could hold their own in the big, bad Big Ten. Maybe this year, with a kicker at the forefront, they'll prove they can thrive in it.