COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Ralph Friedgen isn't alone in being perplexed by his unpredictable Maryland football team.
North Carolina quarterback Cameron Sexton isn't sure what's in store Saturday when the No. 17 Tar Heels face the Terrapins in a pivotal game for both teams. Will this be the Maryland team that knocked off three ranked teams, or the one that got manhandled by Middle Tennessee State, Virginia and, most recently, Virginia Tech?
"Coming off a loss, I don't know how their team is going to react," Sexton said.
Given that Maryland has won five straight against Top 25 teams, North Carolina coach Butch Davis expects the Terrapins to be at their best.
"I know that Ralph Friedgen is a good football coach and their staff is going to do a good job. They're going to have those guys prepared," Davis said. "But I'm more worried about Carolina. All we have to do is take care of ourselves."
The Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2) have won two straight, both over ranked foes, but Maryland presents a different kind of challenge. The Terps (6-3, 3-2) haven't lost to a ranked team since September 2007, are 38-11 under Friedgen at Byrd Stadium and have gone more than a decade since their last loss to North Carolina at home.
"Home-field advantage this year has been really big for us. On the road I don't know what happens to us," Maryland linebacker Moise Fokou said. "We have two of the last three at home, so if we keep having the success we are having at home we should be all right."
The Terrapins will earn a berth in the ACC title game by beating North Carolina, Florida State and Boston College. Their main focus against the Tar Heels will be avoiding blunders against a defense that has forced 24 turnovers and returned four interceptions for touchdowns.
"Their defense is amazing," Terps center Edwin Williams said. "They have an amazing front four. Although they're a really young team, two seniors, they fly around a lot. The front four gets it done with the pass rush. They're just a real solid team."
The Maryland defense will be tested, too. North Carolina running backs Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston totaled 164 yards on the ground last week in a 28-7 win over Georgia Tech, which does not bode well for unit that yielded 253 yards rushing to Virginia Tech freshman Darren Evans in a 23-13 defeat.
If the Terrapins bunch up to stop the run, Sexton will start looking for wide receivers Hakeem Nicks (50 catches, 854 yards, eight touchdowns) and Brooks Foster.
"When you run the football like we are they have to come up and respect the run, and that opens up things downfield," Sexton said. "It also sets up the play-action."
Already assured its first winning season since 2001, North Carolina needs a victory to stay tied atop the Coastal Division and sustain its ascent in the national rankings. It's been a while since the Tar Heels played a game this important in mid-November, and they're loving it.
"Coach Davis stresses all the time that you want to play in games that mean something. You want to play in games with the blimp in the sky," UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin said. "Guys are definitely taking advantage of the opportunity. We have the opportunity to go win out and be one of the top teams in UNC history. We've just got to keep working, keep going."