Serafino (Foge) Fazio keeps a screwy metaphor perched on the right corner of his desk. Can it be that this ceramic combination football/planter with a geranium blooming out of it is a sign that Fazio and his Pitt football team are healthy once more?

Last year the Panthers were early choices to win the national championship. Instead, they finished 9-3. This year, Playboy's pundits picked them to finish 4-7. Pitt is nothing if not contrary. The team opened the season by beating Tennessee in Knoxville-- the same Volunteers chosen to finish No. 1 by Sport magazine.

Fazio unconsciously patted the glazed planter and said, "I guess now that the pressure's off a little, we're not afraid to win." Saturday, No. 16 Pitt comes to College Park to play Maryland without Dan Marino, Jimbo Covert and Julius Dawkins, but with a sense of abandon that has come some way in making up for a lack of ability and experience.

The talk last year about Pitt was loud and in no way kind. From Jackie Sherrill, Fazio inherited a prestigious coaching job and a team that had gone 33-3 in three years. Although Sherrill had left for more lucrative pastures at Texas A&M, Fazio thought the best way to fulfill the potential of the senior-dominated team was to change nothing.

"When the university gave me the job, it was a mandate to do what we were doing," Fazio said. "I wasn't going to change the stripes on the helmet. I wasn't really going to change anything. It might not have been the right thing to do, but with three 11-1 years behind you, you figure it must be."

But by the end of the regular season, Pitt had lost to Notre Dame, 31-16, and to Penn State, 19-10.

Poise slouched. Polish tarnished. Tim Lewis criticized wide receiver Dawkins, his all-America teammate, for dogging his routes. The local press criticized Marino, an all-America quarterback, for losing his touch.

In December, as Pitt prepared to play Southern Methodist in the Cotton Bowl, Fazio figured matters could only improve. If his defense could shut down SMU's tailbacks, Craig James and Eric Dickerson, he could close the season by beating a previously undefeated team.

Then, two days before the team was to fly to Texas, linebacker Todd Becker fell out a dormitory window to his death. As an assistant coach, Fazio had recruited Becker, and now, at 2 a.m., he was calling his parents to tell them their son was dead.

"It was one of the most tragic things I've ever seen," Fazio said. "I recruited him. His father was a truck driver. The family lives in Massachusetts, and they used to drive 14, 15 hours to Pittsburgh for every home game.

"When that happened, it put a lot of things in perspective. We'd lost two games, we'd had the bad press with the Lewis thing, but this just put it in view to have to bury a teammate. The players see that, someone so big, strong, full of life and then, bam, he's gone . . . "

Pitt lost, 7-3, to SMU, then lost several top starters in the NFL draft. This summer, Pitt coaches called this a rebuilding year, which is usually a nice way of saying, "We lost all our horses, don't expect much from our colts." Nonetheless, Pitt is playing with the poise possessed by a young team that has endured the depths.

The victory over Tennessee and a 35-0 romp over Temple showed Pitt to be strong in the traditional area--defense. Led by safety Tom Flynn, tackle Bill Maas and end Al Wenglikowski, the team is second behind North Carolina in team defense.

What may have led to predictions of such a dismal year is that the Panthers' best player on offense is not a game-breaking back like Tony Dorsett or passer like Dan Marino, but a huge left tackle, Bill Fralic.

In practice, Fralic is in no way an elegant sight. When he is not pushing defensive linemen this way and that like so many chessmen, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior stands on the sideline, exhorting his dwarfed teammates in a voice that bellows with the pitch of the primeval. Like many players on the Pitt team, Fralic's father was a steelworker. The muscular son might have been forged rather than born.

Fralic began the season protecting a junior quarterback, John Cummings. But Cummings broke his collarbone and John Congemi, a sophomore, has filled in well, completing 15 of 23 for 177 yards against Temple.

Still, he looked inconsistent in practice, rolling out with speed but often throwing without accuracy. Against Maryland, Fazio will see once more if the lack of pressure and a sense of renewal can cover for raw youth.