"You could say they [State] are the 2002 version of the Maryland Terrapins in the ACC."
It's not hard to see how a member of the national media could make a comment along these lines. After all, State is undefeated overall with just four games remaining. State has an opportunity to win the ACC and play in the Orange Bowl, if not the Fiesta should some pieces fall into place. And State, like Maryland the year before, is coached by one of its own, a proud alum come home to rebuild the program enjoying a streak of strong performances by his team.
From the outside looking in, State does have all the makings of Maryland redux. Inherent in that assessment is the implication that a) should State make its way to a BCS bowl it faces certain defeat, if not humiliation, and b) the following season will prove the prior to have been a fluke. It's the "Here today, Gone tomorrow" syndrome.
But one of the challenges a nationally syndicated sports reporter faces, and one of the luxuries local fans and media enjoy, is the ability to view the two programs much more closely and with a finer-toothed comb.
Let's start with the bowl situation. The ACC is guaranteed one berth in a major BCS bowl, typically the Orange when it does not host the National Championship. Last season Maryland staked its claim in the Orange by virtue of becoming ACC Champs. But they assumed that title despite losing 52-31 to the number two team in the conference, FSU. They claimed it after the Seminoles fell to State in Tallahassee and to UNC-Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, giving them two conference losses to Maryland's one.
This year, both State and FSU are 4-0 in conference. While FSU has lost three out-of-conference games, they still stand a great chance of vying for the conference championship and the right to go to the Orange Bowl. Assuming both State and FSU remain undefeated in the conference standings heading into the Nov. 23 match up, the winner of that game will be crowned conference champ and go to the Orange Bowl with no help from other members of the conference. Should State win that game they will have earned the BCS bowl solely on their own, something Maryland of 2001 could not boast.
The second thing that separates this Pack team from last year's Maryland is the quarterback position. Shaun Hill did a fantastic job leading the Terps in his final season. He made plays when they needed it and brought together an offensive unit that could have easily relied solely on the performance of tailback Bruce Perry. He engineered a fantastic come-from-behind drive in Carter Finley in the final minutes to preserve their ACC Championship when it looked like State would pull off the upset.
But Hill, quite frankly, was not the quarterback Philip Rivers has become in his three years at State. Whereas Hill ended his senior season 52nd in passing efficiency, Rivers leads the country in that category. Hill made plays when he needed to--Rivers just makes plays. The Terps relied heavily on tailback Bruce Perry to carry most of the workload--their rushing offense that finished 11th nationally, while their passing offense finished 57th. The Pack can pass just as well as they can run, and will play to either strength in any given game. The passing ability of Rivers gives them that opportunity.
The biggest thing, however, that will set this year's Pack apart from last year's Maryland squad is the road ahead. More specifically, how much of the previous team is left heading into the next. Maryland lost Hill to graduation, along with a great deal of the defensive secondary. That lack of experience in the quarterback position hurt them early on this year as they opened the season with a shutout loss to Notre Dame. The Pack, however, looks forward to next season with a team loaded with young talent and a senior quarterback in Rivers. Having Rivers, T.A. McLendon, Sterling Hicks, et al. back--not to mention an impressive recruiting class that will include Tramain Hall and the return of A.J. Davis--should ensure that State's talent level on the field continues to rise instead of fall off.
Obviously there's a great deal of football left to be played this season. The Pack may finish undefeated, or they may finish 9-4. The Seminoles may win out or they may drop a couple more games in conference before they meet with State in Raleigh.
But State fans have to feel much more comfortable looking into 2003 than Maryland did looking at 2002. The way the two seasons--State and Maryland's 2001--are playing out may look similar to some from the outside, but the difference between the two will become apparent down the road.
While attending NCSU, James Curle was a sports writer and photographer for Technician. He has also written for several other area publications, including the Cary News and The Wolfpacker.