Surprise Team – Maryland

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Maryland could surprise in Durkin's third year

D.J. Durkin is entering his third season as the head coach at Maryland. His first two years have been plagued by injuries at the quarterback position.

During his first year at the helm with senior Perry Hills as his starting QB, the Terrapins raced out to 4-0 record going into a road assignment at Penn State. The Nittany Lions were only ahead 17-14 when Hills went down with an injury, but they rolled to a 38-14 triumph after he was sidelined.

Without its starting QB vs. Minnesota at home, Maryland couldn’t generate any offense in a 31-10 home loss. However, with Hills back the following week vs. Michigan State, the Terps captured a 28-17 victory. Next, they allowed a late third-quarter lead to get away in a 42-36 loss at Indiana. With a 5-3 record, Durkin’s bunch had a trio of Top-20 opponents on deck.

The last thing it could afford at this point was another injury to Hills, but that’s exactly what happened at the Big House the following week. Michigan, ranked No. 2 at the time, rolled to an easy 59-3 win. With Hills out vs. Ohio State and at Nebraska, Maryland scored only 10 points and was the victim of three straight blowout defeats.

Needing a win in the regular-season finale at home vs. Rutgers to go bowling, Hills returned and helped his team to 31-13 victory. Therefore, Maryland went 6-1 in the seven games in which Hills started and finished, although it did drop a 36-30 decision to Boston College at the Quick Lane Bowl.

The 2017 campaign started with a huge splash, as Durkin’s team went into Austin and ruined the debut of Tom Herman at Texas. Maryland won by a 51-41 count thanks to a pair of special-teams TDs and a pick-six. The victory was slightly bittersweet, though, as QB Tyrell Pigrome and senior DE Jesse Aniebonam were lost to season-ending injuries.

After trouncing Towson 63-17 in Week 2, true freshman QB Kasim Hill tore his ACL in the first quarter of a 38-10 loss to a UCF squad that would go on to finish 13-0. Maryland bounced back nicely at Minnesota, winning 31-24 as a 13-point underdog for a second victory as a double-digit road underdog.

With a third-string QB for the rest of the year, however, things went South fast. Maryland managed merely one more win over Indiana at home, 42-39. The final tally was a disappointing 4-8 straight-up record and a 5-7 against-the-spread ledger.

One way to view the current state of the program is that it has lost 15 of its past 21 games. Twelve of those 15 setbacks have come by double-digit margins.

On the flip side, you could say that Durkin is 8-2 in 10 games when his starting QB has played an entire game. Now obviously, we know it doesn’t work like that and I almost feel as if I just channeled a little Butch Jones in the doctoring of that stat.

Nevertheless, I do feel like Maryland is flying under the radar coming into 2018. There are three impact players returning from season-ending injuries sustained in early September. In addition, Durkin’s team welcomes three transfers who will immediately start on defense.

Let’s start with the transfers, including LB Tre’ Wallace (Illinois), CB Marcus Lewis (FSU) and DE Byron Cowart (Auburn). Wallace is a grad transfer who was the Illini’s second-leading tackler in 2016 with 102 stops, and he was third last year (65) despite missing three games. In three seasons, Wallace has made 15 starts and recorded 188 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, six QB hurries, three forced fumbles, three passes broken up, 2.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. He can step in and replace starting middle LB Jermaine Carter, who had a team-best 90 tackles in ’17.

When Durkin was Will Muschamp’s defensive coordinator at Florida, he helped recruit Cowart. The five-star DE was a UF commit before Muschamp was fired. He decided to go to Auburn, where he vastly underachieved in ’15 and ’16 before playing junior-college ball last year. Cowart gets a fresh start in College Park.

As a sophomore at FSU, Lewis started five games and had 21 tackles, one TFL and a huge interception in the third quarter of a comeback win vs. Ole Miss in the season opener. He sat out last season as a transfer.

Aniebonam enjoyed a breakout campaign in ’16, producing 46 tackles, nine sacks, five TFL’s, three QB hurries, one forced fumble and one PBU. He had 23 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three TFL’s as a sophomore. Aniebonam was a third-team preseason All Big Ten selection in Phil Steele’s preseason magazine going into ’17, and he’s garnered the same honor in Steele’s mag going into this year.

The QBs, Hill and Pigrome, missed spring practice but are expected to compete for the starting job in August. Hill completed 18-of-21 passes for 230 yards and two TDs without an interception before getting hurt. He had rushed for 60 yards and one TD on 12 attempts. Pigrome had connected on 9-of-12 throws for 175 yards with a 2/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He had run for 64 yards and one TD on 11 carries.

Maryland’s offensive line returns intact and has 105 career starts combined. Three of Durkin’s top-five recruits in his ’18 class were o-linemen who will provide depth. Steele’s mag ranks the Terps’ o-line as the third-best in the Big Ten and the country’s 11th-best.

Maryland is deep at RB with its group ranking sixth in the Big Ten and 29th in the nation, according to Steele. Senior Ty Johnson has 2,129 career rushing yards and 17 TDs (14 rushing). As a sophomore in ’16, Johnson ran for 1,004 yards and averaged 9.1 yards per carry. He rushed for 875 yards and five TDs while averaging 6.4 YPC last season. Johnson also had a TD catch and a 100-yard kickoff return for a score.

Junior RB Lorenzo Harrison is an experienced back-up who has 1,255 yards and a 5.6 YPC average in his first two years. Also, redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland is ready to contribute. McFarland was the (high) four-star prize of Durkin’s 2017 recruiting haul who had to redshirt while still recovering from a high-school injury.

Maryland lost its best WR D.J. Moore, who was a first-round pick by the Carolina Panthers. But Tavion Jacobs returns after bringing down 47 receptions for 553 yards and five TDs in ’17. Jacobs, Johnson and OT Damian Prince, a former five-star recruit who has 30 career starts to his credit, are fourth-team preseason All Big 10 picks in Steele’s mag, while OT Derwin Gray is a third-team selection.

Maryland plays in the toughest division in college football with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State. Steele has the Terps’ schedule ranked as the country’s ninth-toughest. They have seven home games and five true road contests. The South Point Hotel in Las Vegas has Maryland’s season win total at five (‘under’ -125, ‘over’ +105).

Instead of playing (at) Wisconsin and Northwestern from the other side of the league, Maryland faces Illinois at home, travels to Iowa, and takes on Minnesota for a third consecutive year.

I think the Terps will be favored in five games – at Bowling Green, vs. Temple, vs. Minnesota, vs. Rutgers and vs. Illinois. They might be favored at Indiana, but that isn’t the best situational spot. Maryland is at Indiana on Nov. 10, sandwiched between home games vs. Michigan State and Ohio State. The Hoosiers have an open date beforehand and their previous game is on a Friday night at Minnesota (giving them another extra day of preparation).

Are there any other potential wins? Well, Maryland is an 11-point home underdog for its opener vs. Texas. Sure, the Longhorns have the revenge angle, but that’s a game that went the Terps’ way on the road last season.

Durkin’s club will be a heavy underdog in three games we can certainly mark as losses – at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Penn State (in back-to-back games to close the regular season). We will note, however, that Maryland does get two weeks to prep for the Wolverines and could be worth a look catching a ton of points.

The other two games left on the slate are at Iowa and vs. Michigan State. These will undoubtedly be underdog situations, but I’m not sure upsets are completely out of the question if things (such as health and quality QB play) are going well.

Whatever the case, Maryland looks like an underrated team if it can keep its QBs healthy. I’m not implying Maryland ‘over’ five wins (+105) will be a strong play for me (amount-wise), but I do expect Durkin’s luck to start turning the right way and for the Terps to be back in the postseason.

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.