On the surface, little has changed at Duke. Saturday, when the Blue Devils play host to Maryland (WJLA-TV-7, 12:35 p.m.) the Terps (4-3) will be considered a prohibitive favorite.

They are too big, too strong and too deep for a 1-5 team with little experience, no depth and a recent past that proves the validity of Murphy's law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

With North Carolina and N.C. State both playing at home, Wallace Wade Stadium will be half empty. But if you look closely at the loyal few who still show up to watch Duke play, if you get right up in their faces, you may see somthing long absent in the fall on this campus: the beginning of a smile.

The reason is Ben Bennett.

One year ago, Duke football bottomed out. For most of the 1970s, horrendous facilities, poor administration, a miniscule operating budget and tough academic standards combined to push the program from decent to mediocre. Finally, last year, Coach Red Wilson's first season, it reached dreadful as the Blue Devils finished 2-8-1 and embarrassed themselves often.

But in January, two things happened to finally turn the program in the direction toward respectability. First, Steve Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, was hired to coordinate the offense. Second, Bennett, who broke records held by the likes of Steve Bartkowski and Craig Morton during his high school career in Sunnyvale, Calif., UCLA, Colorado and Michigan. hSpurrier had someone to run his pro set, pass-oriented offense.

Bennett came to Duke because, like many athletes, he wanted to be the main cog in a rebuilding program.

There was one other factor. His mother Rita is a Duke alumnus. She never pressed Bennett to go to Duke but insisted he visit the campus before making a decision.

"I knew the situation, I knew they were pretty much starting from scratch here," Bennett said today, gulping his second glass of orange juice. "I was interested in Colorado for the same reason. But I just thought Duke had it going in the right direction.

"Also, I didn't figure they would bring in Coach Spurrier, then go to California to recruit a quarterback and have a run-oriented offense. I wanted to throw the ball. When I visited, that decided it. It was like love at first sight."

Bennett is 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds. He is not a scrambler because, he says, "when they time me in the 40 they look to see if their watches have stopped." But Spurrier says he has all the tools a quarterback needs.

"He's got a good arm and a good head," Spurrier said. "He learns from his mistakes. Most important though, he's got the quarterback qualities. He has the kind of charisma and confidence that you need to give the other guys confidence in you."

Most of all, Ben Bennett has cockiness. With his curly brown hair, hawkish nose and clever, sharp-tongued manner, he fits none of the laid-back California stereotypes. He is more Manhattan than Malibu. That kind of brashness did not go over very well when Bennett arrived here in August.

"Ben just can't be the quiet, stay-in-the-background, keep-your-mouth-shut freshman like people expect," Spurrier said. "That's just not his way. I finally had to take him aside and tell him to let his play do the talking."

For four games, Bennett and sophomore Brent Klincscale split time at quarterback. Spurrier finally decided he had to stick with one quarterback. He went with Bennett.

His confidence in the precocious freshman paid off a week ago. Bennett was 21 of 32 for 257 yards, threw for a touchdown and caught one (on a high school play he suggested to Spurrier) as Duke ended its 11-game losing strak by beating Clemson, 34-17, at Clemson.

"It was about the greatest feeling in my life," Bennett said. "We worked so hard, so long and it finally paid off. It's a beginning."

At 18, he is mature beyond his years -- understandably. His mother, who lives in Durham now, is afflicted with myastenia gravis, a neuro-vascular disease.

"There were times when I was a kid that if I wasn't cool under pressure my mom might have died," Bennett said. "After that, being a quarterback in a full stadium doesn't feel like that much of a pressure situation."

Mike Tice took some naps during Maryland's practice Thursday and may start Saturday . . . Bobby Brower, Duke running back from Madison High in Vienna, Va., is a doubtful starter with cracked ribs . . . Duke leads the series, 14-9, but Maryland has won the last six . . . Both teams are 1-1 in the ACC.