Lulled into a false sense of security, Maryland fans watched the Terrapins' breakout season disintegrate before a nationally televised audience.
Initially impressed by the Terrapins' 3-0 record to open the 1999 season, football enthusiasts soon realized a fluff non-conference schedule was responsible for the easy wins.
Shutouts of Temple and West Virginia, and a 51-10 shellacking of Western Carolina allowed Maryland's optimism to run rampant. Those feeble opponents finished with a combined 9-24 record last year.
The truth about Maryland finally was revealed when Georgia Tech dismantled the Terps for 49 points and 587 yards.
"We gave up a lot of points to Georgia Tech on a Thursday night, and we kind of lost our stinger," said fourth-year coach Ron Vanderlinden. "Defensively, we never recovered."
Despite ending the 1999 season on a four-game losing skid, Vanderlinden's program showed progress. Quarterback injuries magnified the Terrapins' passing deficiencies, and they fell one win shy of bowl eligibility.
Following the Georgia Tech debacle, Maryland rebounded with a 17-14 victory at Wake Forest. It would be the Terps' only win against a bowl-eligible squad. Still, Vanderlinden's team owned a 5-2 record heading into the second half of the season.
Keeping sophomore quarterback Calvin McCall healthy would assist Maryland's quest for a winning campaign. McCall completed 93 of 179 passes for 1,264 yards before being sidelined with a knee injury in the ninth game.
Latrez Harrison took command of the offense but never developed consistency to complement LaMont Jordan, who finished second in the ACC with 1,632 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Our team has learned we can win," Vanderlinden said. "What we need to do is throw the ball better. Our first goal is to have a winning season."
Vanderlinden inherited a 5-6 squad in 1997 only to dip to 2-9. Maryland won three games in 1998 and finished eighth in the ACC for the third time last year.
He has transformed the league's worst rushing team into the best. Maryland paced the ACC with 2,545 rushing yards last year. The former Colorado and Northwestern assistant says he expects Harrison and McCall to play integral roles this season.
Reaching the six-win plateau hinges on their development and Jordan's success in the classroom. The nation's fifth-leading rusher compiled 148.36 yards per game in 1999, but his eligibility won't be decided until later this month when summer school grades are issued.
Senior free safety Shawn Forte hopes to lead the Terrapins to their first winning season since 1995 and first bowl game since 1990. Forte attributes the progress made during Vanderlinden's tenure to Maryland's off-season workouts and says the Terps are poised for postseason play.
"We feel we can get over that hump," Forte said. "Last year, we were knocking on the door. We hope (the extra work) pushes us over the edge. (A bowl) would be a nice legacy to leave, and it would be a nice starting point for the rest of the Maryland team."
Reach Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3221.