It's been 40 years since Navy and Maryland met on the football field, but when they open their seasons against each other Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, Navy Coach Paul Johnson said, he'll keep the game in its proper context.

"A lot of people are making this game out to be some big rivalry, and it's not," he said. "We don't recruit the same players as Maryland. We're not in the same conference, and it's not like we play them every year. I think people are looking for something in this game that's just not there."

Those associated with Navy football believe the game ranks somewhere in the middle of its schedule, excitement-wise. It lacks the pageantry and history of the Army-Navy game on Dec. 3; unlike Navy's Oct. 8 clash with Air Force, it has no bearing on the competition for the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy; it lacks the national exposure of the Notre Dame game Nov. 12.

"Our focal point every season is trying to beat Army, Air Force and Notre Dame," Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said. "Our game against Maryland is just another football game for us, one of 11 we'll play."

"The game that our brigade looks forward to the most is playing Army," said junior receiver Jason Tomlinson. "Those games get everybody pumped up, and it's been so long since we've played Maryland."

Navy enters the year with high expectations after going 10-2 last year -- the team's most victories in 99 years. But a major change for the Midshipmen, who return just two starters on offense and three on defense, is the schedule. Navy upgraded its competition, dropping games against Division I-AA Northeastern and Delaware for dates against Maryland and Stanford (Sept. 10).

"Playing those teams was the next step we had to take," senior defensive end Jeremy Chase said. "We proved we could have success playing a lighter schedule. We lost a lot of great players last year, so now we just have to reload."

In the big picture, this is a must-win game for Maryland, which went 5-6 last year, if it's to win the six games required to be eligible for a bowl game. The Terrapins play a tough schedule, with seven other games against teams that played in a bowl game and four against teams ranked in the preseason Top-25. Navy plays just one team -- Notre Dame -- that reached a bowl game last season.

"We're looking at Maryland for what it is," Johnson said. "A season opener that we want to win."

One of Navy's biggest goals is to retain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, given to the winner of competition among the three service academies: Navy, Army and Air Force. The Midshipmen are also seeking to play in a bowl game for the third straight year, which would be a school first.

Navy moved its game against Air Force to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium for the first time since 1997 after playing the game at FedEx Field in 2003, 2001 and 1999. Last year, Navy won at Air Force for the first time since 1996.

Navy's success under Johnson -- the team has a combined 18 victories in two seasons -- has raised the public's interest in a team that won just 11 games from 1998 to 2002. Navy, which recently completed a $40 million renovation to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, has sold more than 17,000 season tickets, shattering the record of 12,000 set last year.

"We could have gotten more money to play the [Air Force] game somewhere else, but it was always our vision to play this game at the Yard," Gladchuk said. "The excitement surrounding our program has changed the mentality of our team."

Navy will also be seen by more people, as the school signed a five-year deal with College Sports Television, an all-college sports cable network, to broadcast its home games, including the Maryland game Saturday.

"If you look at the exposure we got when our senior class first got here four years ago to where it is now, it says that we've come a long way," said Navy senior receiver Mick Yokitis. "But that's what happens when you win, and hopefully we can add to it this year."

Navy has a long line of historical rivalries, but hasn't played Maryland in 40 years. The teams square off to open their seasons Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium.Navy's defense will face Maryland's Sam Hollenbach, in background, who beat out Joel Statham, in foreground, for the starting quarterback job.