University of Maryland students are finding out this year what every teen-ager must eventually learn: Popularity isn't everything, particularly when you have a top-ranked football team.

Tickets to games of the newly hot Terrapins, rated first in the nation in two preseason rankings, have become so coveted that university officials have strictly limited students to one free ticket each, which they can obtain only by presenting themselves at the stadium office during limited hours.

Incensed by the inconvenience, students are calling for a "peaceful demonstration" preceding today's game against West Virginia University, adroitly timed to coincide with university officials' annual fete of the Maryland General Assembly.

"We're protesting the fact that we have to go through a procedure at all . . . . Every student who pays the activities fee ought to be able to go at their leisure," said Stephen Rosenberg, a vice president of the Student Government Association and an organizer of the demonstration, which is to include a pep rally and tailgate party.

University officials, while conceding that ticket distribution has been chaotic, say they have not cut back the number of seats available to students, only the ease of getting to them. Jeff Hathaway, business manager of the athletic department, said the new policy was designed "to avoid overcrowding the student section.

"It was the consensus of both university officials and athletic department officials that it was necessary in order to have a safe environment," he said. He added that any student who stood in line would receive a ticket.

Until this year, students merely had to show their identification and registration cards to be admitted to the stadium. This year, anticipating increased demand for tickets (season tickets have sold out), university officials have tried different approaches to the policy, each of them sharply criticized by students.

Two weeks ago, before the season opener against arch-rival Penn State, officials designated one day for distributing tickets, prompting some students to camp out all night. That plan degenerated into a free-for-all when some students collected batches of tickets and the rest were left without any.

Earlier this week officials told students to pick up their tickets on a day designated by the first letter of their last name, sparking criticism that students were forced to choose between going to class and getting tickets.

Complained senior Aaron Weinrach: "I was home for Rosh Hashanah and when I came back I asked a friend, 'I'm with the Ws, when do I get my ticket?' He said today, 10 o'clock. And I look up, it's 11 o'clock, and I'm sitting in my government class. What was I going to do? Go to government or get a ticket?"

Students are hoping that today's demonstration will force university officials to accede to their demand for a review of the ticket policy, with student input. They are hoping that the delegation of state legislators, who have been invited to bring guests to the game, a reception and dinner for free, will be sympathetic to their cause. But a sampling of legislative opinion indicates that might not be so.

"The students really don't have a legitimate gripe," said State Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), a long-time Terrapins fan who has held season tickets for 10 years, and who plans to use them for this game. Nevetheless, he added, "Students are free to demonstrate; that's what students are for."