The state’s flagship university currently has the best football team in what has long been regarded the toughest “championship subdivision” conference in the country.

Do you fully appreciate the logistics and the odds that the University of Maine has overcome in achieving that status? Do you even care?

Never mind the second question. The answer is readily available, both from the lack of conversation heard daily on the street about the Black Bears and from raw attendance data.

Top-10 Maine ran its record to 8-1 — a spotless 5-0 in the brutal Colonial Athletic Association — with Saturday’s 19-14 victory over Stony Brook.

That followed a stretch in which the Black Bears beat Richmond, Delaware, William and Mary and Villanova. The one named after the British monarchs is the only one in the group not to win a national title since 2003.

Maine’s only loss: Northwestern, a bowl subdivision team that has made a recent habit of playing on New Year’s Day, one whose deceiving 4-5 record includes losses to undefeated Ohio State and now Nebraska in soul-crushing fashion.

All that, and yet Saturday’s announced attendance at 10,000-seat Morse Field was a sorry 4,068. Even the homecoming tilt against W&M two weeks earlier drew a crowd south of seven grand.

Sad, because with only Albany, Rhode Island and New Hampshire remaining on the slate, the Black Bears are in a beautiful position to run the table and easily clear the threshold as one of the top eight teams in the division formerly known as I-AA.

That would guarantee Maine a first-round playoff bye, followed by a second-round home game and all the advantages and pageantry that come with it.

If the magical season rolls on to the quarterfinals or semifinals, well, the NCAA assigns those games according to the best chance to make a few bucks. You can be certain that the Black Bears will ride a silver bird to that contest.

When that happens, social media surely will explode. “Where can I find the Maine game? What, you mean I have to watch it on my computer? That’s terrible!”

Adorable, when you consider that by then, Maine will have played in a season’s worth of home games. Most of us could commute in about half the time it takes us to get to a Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Celtics or Revolution game. Yet the team goes about its business in anonymity.

Yes, we’re notorious front-runners in this part of the country. (How many of your closest friends were living and dying with every Red Sox pitch in April, May and June?) But good grief, Maine was in this spot only two years ago, when it extended an unlikely 8-3 season by smacking No. 9 Appalachian State, 34-12, on the road in the playoffs.

It was the Black Bears’ fourth playoff berth under Jack Cosgrove, who is far-and-away the most under-appreciated coach in the history of the Orono campus, including all sports.

Perhaps the vacant bleacher space at Alfond Stadium is symbolic of what Cosgrove battles every day to keep this program viable. Maine isn’t exactly a population center. In a state where there’s an increasing sense that nothing grows outside Greater Portland, outlying Orono is another two hours north.

Other than Jared Turcotte before his knees betrayed him, Cosgrove rarely sees a non-lineman good enough to play at this level within a 250-mile radius. So he scours Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where the best players with FCS chops aren’t exactly clamoring to spend four winters in a snow-swept community of 9,000 whose chief amenity is pizza delivery.

Those who do pay a campus visit spend that afternoon surveying the training facilities of Memorial Gym, which for all its quaintness and recent lipstick-on-a-moose upgrades is far beneath the standard of where Cosgrove’s CAA colleagues do their daily business.

So Cosgrove gets the leftovers. The projects. The not-ready-for-prime-time players. It’s an advantage to the extent that the coach can mold them into his own image. It’s a disadvantage in every other sense.

Mold and develop and win he does, however. Not gloriously every year. By the nature of how Maine has to build, we’re used to seeing nine wins one season and five the next. But we’re also accustomed to overachievement. As recently as two years ago, Maine had more active NFL players than any other FCS school.

All that, and Maine football barely creates a ripple in this state. Ice hockey, five years past national relevance, dwarfs the attention afforded the gridiron. Red Gendron received more TV time on the golf course over the summer than Cosgrove gets on the sideline in the fall.

Past success in women’s basketball and baseball showed our giddiness at any opportunity to shout the stein song. Many of those stars were homegrown, though. Cindy Blodgett. Amy Vachon. Billy Swift. Mike Bordick. Bill Reynolds.

Hooray for provincialism. But those football players from-away are wearing the same uniform with the same nickname emblazoned across the chests, representing those colors at the national level in a way no other Maine athletic program has done in years.

This would be a terrific time to at least pretend they exist.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


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