It's officially the first game week of the Maryland football season, and head coach Mike Locksley's team will have a good barometer test when West Virginia travels to College Park on Saturday.
And that's exactly what Locksley wants.
"When you have an opportunity to welcome a team like West Virginia to open up (the season), I told our players it gives us a pretty fast idea as to what team we're going to be," Locksley said to reporters at Tuesday's availability.
Entering his third season at the helm of Maryland, Locksley is coming into the 2021 season following the most normal offseason as Terps' head coach. D.J. Durkin's dismissal admidst a reported "toxic culture" and Jordan McNair's death kept a lingering cloud over the team in Locksley's first year in 2019. A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic complicated the offseason and limited the season to just five games.
"As a team you create your team every year. It's different," Locksley said. "We've got an opportunity here this Saturday out at the Shell to go out and create an identity for us and tell what kind of team we're going to be this year."
West Virginia, which received votes in both the preseason AP and coaches polls just outside the top-25, presents a tough challenge after having won the Liberty Bowl against Army last New Year's Eve.
Aside from 2020 and the Terps' back-to-back season-opening wins vs. Texas in 2017 and 2018, Maryland traditionally has utilized the curtain raiser to beat up on FCS squads like Howard, Richmond and James Madison or lower-tier FBS teams like Florida International - and gain confidence in the process.
Instead, this season's start comes against a geographic rival that has taken nine of the last 10 head-to-head meetings. Locksley recalled during his first stint with the Terps as an assistant coach under Ralph Friedgen the sheer dislike for WVU, noting traditional Maryland football fans will understand this matchup as "a regional rivalry" between the two bordering state schools.
"I think it's always good, I'm a big fan of the rivalry-type games," Locksley said. "Rivalries, to me, you guys make them that but I do think geographically this is a game that I know when I grew up being a Terp fan was a game that was always a big one on the calendar."
Locksley also named his first three gameday captains: A couple wide receivers in star Dontay Demus Jr. and unheralded leader Brian Cobbs, plus sixth-year defensive end Sam Okuayinonu. Locksley has relied heavily on that trio in helping instill the culture and locker room leadership needed for the kind of season Terps fans yearn for.
"Player driven teams are usually the ones that win big, and I feel like we're heading in the right direction of being that type of team," Locksley said. "I see tremendous leadership."
With offensive line depth an issue according to Locksley (exemplified by Aric Harris getting the starting nod at center after only recently arriving from the junior college ranks), the defensive resiliency the Mountaineers have established for themselves could prove decisive.
Still, Locksley's 2021 squad boasts a rare commodity in recent times for the Maryland program: a returning starting quarterback. Taulia Tagovailoa returns after throwing for 1,111 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in his debut season.
"It's definitely been a steadying force for us to have a returning starter at quarterback, because that hasn't been a luxury at least in my 13 years here at that position," said Locksley, who noted the addition of new offensive coordinator/QB coach Dan Enos has also aided in Tagovailoa's development. "We'll see on Saturday if all the work and things he's done come to fruition and allow him to play really well for us."
After a truncated fall 2020 season with just five games and no fans at Maryland Stadium at Capital One Field, Locksley spoke of the excitement surrounding the season with a live press conference for the first time since before the shutdown in March, 2020.
"The pandemic is not over but it's definitely great to be able to see people in person, and normalcy kind of letting us know it's game week," Locksley said. "I think the feeling that we'll have a little more normalcy will take place for us on Saturday when we for the first time in over a year welcome our fans back to the Shell and I know our players are excited about this opportunity because again it was taken away from us."