It's kind of strange the way the programs at Maryland and NC State have been in lockstep over the last ten years. Both schools hired new coaches at the beginning of the decade, both found immediate success that outpaced what they'd done in the years prior to their respective regime changes. Both took a dive in 2004, both have been searching for the success of those early years ever since.
NCSU: 34-17 (4 bowls)
UMD: 36-14 (3 bowls)
NCSU: 39-44 (2 bowls)
UMD: 42-42 (3 bowls)
There are key differences, of course. Ralph Friedgen was able to deliver on an ACC title; Chuck Amato's teams had opportunities to do so in each of Philip Rivers's last two seasons but could not break through, in no small part because they couldn't find a way to beat the Terps. Friedgen's program rebounded in the middle of the decade and went to three consecutive bowl games; at least partially because of that, the Fridge was able to survive a rock-bottom year. Chuck wasn't so fortunate.
In what is probably the most pivotal season of his tenure, Ralph Friedgen has taken a team that was supposed to finish dead last in the Atlantic Division to at least seven wins and a bowl trip. Suffice it to say, it was a good time for a soft conference schedule. It was also a very good time to find a good quarterback, which the Fridge has in freshman Danny O'Brien.
O'Brien isn't the best freshman quarterback the ACC has seen since Philip Rivers, but he has injected life into what was an impotent attack in conference play last season. They're getting more out of every pass attempt, and O'Brien has limited mistakes--he averages one INT every 45 throws, which is a good mark by any standard. He's done that despite an offensive line that has been denied continuity by a string of injuries.
They may not have any more margin for injury along the line, but they seem to be holding together okay. I was impressed with the line's play against Florida State on Saturday despite the shuffling they had to do.
The same thing that kills the ACC on a national level--a lack of elite programs--is the same thing that helps to sustain the sort of seasons we've seen from NC State and Maryland in 2010. It's not difficult to dodge true certain-defeat games with a little lucky scheduling, and opportunism paves the way for breakthrough seasons moreso than in other BCS conferences (the Big East excepted). Maryland has gotten better on both sides of the ball, and they've improved their turnover margin from -6 in 2009 to +11 in 2010. Toss in a forgiving conference schedule, and voilà: a five-win improvement and counting.
So here we are again, another late-season game against Maryland with a lot on the line. Although the Terps weren't able to make good on a true showdown game, it feels a bit like old times anyway.