The University of Maryland is on the threshold of securing that all-important thing that separates the Ohio States and Notre Dames from the rest, that gets the USCs through lean years tradition.

With that intangible commodity so close.Maryland needs another big year in football.

Coach Jerry Claiborne has a 41-6-2 record in five years at Maryland, authoring a football rebirth at College Park. But more significantly, his teams have done as well or better each year.

To interrupt that pattern of progress would bring down the framework of a Maryland faith in itself that Claiborne has spent 80 hours a week blue-printing.

To equal or surpass last year's 11-0 regular season mark will be the most difficult task of Claiborne's career, altough he publicly brushes it off as not being that important.

Thus, there is the unspoken fear on the team of undoing all the good that's been done.

"We've quite this year," said line-backer Brad Carr. "It's not like last year. Last year we were jumping. We were certain we could go 11-0 and we said it, and we did it."

This year, we're more inward. We want to win. But we're keeping it to ourselves."

Carr, named to the all-Atlantic Coast Conference team last year, notices another difference in this team, which is still finding itself after losing six of its seven best offensive line-men.

"Our practices are longer this year," said Carr. "Last year, the first team went in early. This year, we're out there for extra drills."

The Terps are odds-on favorites to win a fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference title. That is no longer the questions.

At Maryland, its not winning but how you win. To persuade their doubters, the Terps must do more than collect ACC crowns. An undefeated season is important. A victory over Penn State would be the real eye opner.

In the series dating back to 1917, Penn State holds a startling 21-1 edge, underscoring the fact that the Terps are in the embryonic stage of growing into a recognized superpower.

Penn State has tradition. It also has the home-field advantage Sept. 24, and Maryland players reared on the one-game-at-a-time theory are bashfully admitting that, yes they're looking forward to the Penn State game.

This concerns Carr.

"A win against Penn State could be good and it could be bad," said Carr, a key figure in the Terps' wide-tackle-six defense that last season gave up just 7.7 points a game, third best in the country.

"A win," said Carr, "could blow our heads away. I've been trying to tell people on the team it's just another game."

Carr is justly concerned about the rest of the schedule, particularly the first four games. Maryland has come far enough that complacency could result in a loss a place like Clemson, where, Carr says, the fans "are crazy."

The Terps open this Saturday at Clemson, where the home field is known as Death Valley. Next week, the Terps play their first home game against vastly improved West Virginia, then travel to Penn State.

North Caroline State, with its bothersome Veer, lurks next.

So the Terps will discover quickly if their offensive line - presently a lsit of mystery guests - can adequately complement the fine defense, which by itself will keep Maryland in most games.

Carr wonders what effect last year's 11-0 mark and subsequent 30-21 loss in the Cotton Bowl will have on this year's campaign.

"In a way, you do slouch off and forget how you got there," he said. And Claiborne spoke of a lack of enthusiasm after the first scrimmage.

But Carr is convinced that rebuilding the offensive line will keep the Terp's sufficiently scared.

"They'll just have to grow up and play." said Carr. "The first part of our schedule is hard, and that's unusual. Usually, the last part is hard. But in practice, once they see they can block us, that should boost their confidence."

The Maryland defense, which did not give up a touchdown on the ground in the last 22 quarters of last year's regular season, is doing its part to toughen up the offense.

"We don't run our hard stuff against them," said Carr. "We run our easy stuff so they can block us."