COLLEGE PARK – A.J. Francis has never been shy.
The Maryland Terrapins defensive end performed in plays starting in elementary school. He created the “Fear the Turtle” remix the women’s lacrosse team uses during warm ups. And the loquacious tweeter even earned the distinction of being the only amateur athlete featured on Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Twitter Accounts list this year.
So when the topic turned to Saturday’s conference opener against Wake Forest, the senior wasted little time explaining the game’s significance.
“At the end of the day,” Francis said Tuesday, “our goal is to win the ACC championship.”
Forget that the Terps narrowly escaped William & Mary in their season opener. Forget that they allowed 16 sacks through their first four contests, second worst in the nation. And forget that they rank 113th out of 120 FBS programs in rushing yardage.
For Francis and others, the past is the past. They see start of ACC play represents a fresh start, a chance to take four games worth of growth and learning into a slate filled with familiar foes.
“It’s a big one,” Francis said of Saturday’s matchup. “You could lose all your other games and win the ACC. I hate to say it doesn’t matter what you do before ACC play, but it really doesn’t matter.”
Francis’ logic is sound. The non-conference schedule was simply an appetizer for an entree comprised of the likes of No. 3 Florida State and No. 15 Clemson. The Terps could still earn a bowl bid with a winning record in the ACC.
Of course, the Terps will get a bit of a respite from top-20 competition. After testing No. 8 West Virginia two weeks ago, they should have a manageable October. This month, Edsall’s squad will face Wake Forest (3-2), Virginia (2-3), N.C. State (3-2) and Boston College (1-3) – four teams either at or near the bottom of the ACC standings.
After losing to each of those programs by at least 11 points last season, all four games suddenly seem winnable. The Terps, who were picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division in August, have a legitimate chance of finishing above .500 in the ACC this year.
It’s simply a byproduct of circumstance. The Terps have outpaced expectations largely because freshmen have thrived in key roles.
Other than the Seminoles and Tigers, the rest of ACC has been largely disappointing.
The Terps could even beat Georgia Tech and North Carolina, the other two ACC teams they play in November.
As the Terps prepare for Saturday’s conference opener, few can blame them for dreaming big. After all, this is hardly the same group that lost six of their seven conference games last year by double digits.
This Terps team features the nation’s eighth-ranked defense. This Terps team has do-everything freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs. And perhaps most importantly, this Terps team is unified.
Gone are the defeatist attitudes. This team believes it can win on any given Saturday.
“If we do what we need to do on a day-to-day basis,” Edsall said earlier this year, “we know we can compete with any team in the country.”
An upset or two and the Terps could be in the picture come late November. At this point of the season, anything is possible.
*A version of this story originally appeared in The Diamondback.