Ten days ago, when the weekly wire-service polls were released, they made big headlines here. The news was not Penn State's No. 1 ranking, but the name of the No. 3 team: North Carolina.

Throughout this state, where Carolina athletics are considered only slightly less important than the fate of the world, there was euphoric talk of a national championship.

But not on campus.

"We kind of looked at the ranking and went, 'Hmm, I don't know about that,' " said North Carolina Coach Dick Crum, relaxing on the couch in his spacious office overlooking the football field. "I said at the beginning of the season that this team was a year away. We had to be after losing the kind of players we did off last year's team. We got to No. 3 just by moving up in the pecking order when other people lost."

When South Carolina defeated the Tar Heels, 31-13, last Saturday, Crum and his players reacted about the same way. No one got terribly excited.

"It's just like our six wins," said offensive guard David Dreschler. "Once the game's over, it's behind us. We approached winning that way; we approach losing that way."

That approach typifies the football program. This team is a reflection of Crum's personality. He is a former math teacher who looks at the world logically, a pragmatist in a sport where many insist wide-eyed idealism is one of the keys to success.

In four years, Crum, 47, has taken a good program and moved it to the brink of national prominence. He has done so by recruiting aggressively but selectively; there are only 86 players on scholarship this year. He also has convinced his players that an 8-3 record and a bowl bid, generally considered the marks of a successful season throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference, are not necessarily good enough. "In the old days, Carolina was just glad to be in a bowl, any bowl," senior wide receiver Jon Richardson said. "Now we don't go just to show up, we go to win."

The last two seasons, Carolina has won bowl games. Crum's predecessor, Bill Dooley, who rebuilt the program in the late 1960s, went to six bowl games and won one. Crum is 2-0 and both victories were somewhat surprising. In 1979, the Tar Heels beat Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Last year, they capped an 11-1 season by beating Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

"Those are the kinds of wins you need to get the really top players to notice you," said Charlie Carr, Carolina's recruiting coordinator. "If you don't have success at that level, you don't have any credibility. You beat Michigan, Texas, people everywhere hear about it. When you go into a school, they stop, they look a little harder, they're a little more inquisitive about you."

Carolina still is, and probably always will be, primarily an instate team. Sixty-two members of this year's team are from North Carolina and another 16 are from Virginia. Recruiting strictly within the state might have been a hindrance 15 years ago, but now the state is full of good football players, most of whom grow up dreaming about playing in Chapel Hill.

"The foundation for this program to be in the top 10 consistently is here," Crum said. "We've got the school, the campus, the facilities. We aren't there yet, but we are getting closer."

Crum's goal is simple: a top 10 team almost every season. In his second year, the Tar Heels finished 14th in the country; last year, they were ninth. They are ninth now, coming off their loss to South Carolina and going into Saturday's game at Maryland.

Many say Carolina is 6-1 because of its schedule, rated the 54th toughest in the country this season. But this team has had to overcome adversity. Junior tailback Kelvin Bryant hurt a knee after scoring 15 touchdowns the first three weeks. During the South Carolina game, quarterback Rod Elkins, tailback Tyrone Anthony and linebackers Darrell Nicholson and Lee Shaffer all left with injuries. Only Shaffer is certain to play this week.

Crum wants a tougher schedule, though. He knows people tend to nod off when they read about 56-14 romps over Boston College. "I probably won't even be coaching here by the time we start playing my schedule," he said. "This is not the kind of schedule we want and we're trying to juggle some things to get tougher teams on in the future. We play Pitt next year and that's good. I'd like to play Penn State, too. They would probably win more than we would, but we'd win some."

The Tar Heels are big, strong and deep, although Crum would like them deeper. His recruiting is just beginning to take over the program. Next year's seniors, the first complete recruiting class, still have 24 of 26 players on campus. The class after that has 25 of 25 and all of this fall's freshmen are still around.

"That's when we'll find out how far we've come, when we start getting the big senior classes," Crum said. "We only have seven seniors playing this year. The underclassmen have done a really good job, but it isn't the same as when you center your team around seniors."

The players believe they can compete with anybody now. They look at last year's humiliating, 41-7 loss to Oklahoma as a fluke. But, they also understand that when it comes to football, North Carolina is not Notre Dame.

"That takes time, years," said linebacker Calvin Daniel. "Those programs have won consistently for a long time. We're starting to do that now. We have the talent they do, but we don't have the tradition. That's somewhere down the road for us."

But there has been progress. Richardson remembers riding around in his van out West last summer and making friends with some people on the road. "I told them I went to Carolina and expected them to bring up the basketball team," he said. "But they said, 'Hey, your football team looked real good in the Bluebonnet Bowl.' I guess that means we're making some headway."

Last week was a setback. The dreams of an unbeaten season, a national title, probably a major bowl bid, all disappeared. But no one here seems morose. Crum says winning a national title involves a lot of luck, anyway. What's more, he knows what he is building and he can afford to be patient.

"Dick understands you don't build that perennial top-10 team overnight," Carr said. "We're just now moving into some new recruiting areas, trying to increase our contacts in places like New England, Ohio, Pennsylvania, even Georgia and South Carolina. We're not neglecting close-to-home recruiting, but we know to have a truly great program, you need a mix.

"We're still building this thing. Dick reminds me of a squirrel, putting things away for the winter. He doesn't try to concentrate on one momentous event or one big thing but all the little things that eventually equal something really big. He does it quietly, but he's always doing it."

With his graying hair and slight build, Crum may not be confused with charismatic leaders of great college teams. In fact, when someone asked him what he was thinking about after Carolina's stunning upset of Michigan, he said it was singer Peggy Lee.

"You know," he said, "her song, 'Is That All There Is?' My mind was on what we had to do next almost right away."