Bill Curry remembers standing in the middle of Grant Field in Atlanta last November, wondering how in the world his Georgia Tech football team had just lost to Georgia.

"We gave it away in the last minute or so," Curry said of the 27-24 defeat, in which an interception stopped a potential game-winning drive by Tech in the last 90 seconds. "I was so overwhelmed with the reality that we could be a good football team, that we could win games like that one. We had to push just a little bit more."

With 49 lettermen returning, including 16 starters, a push was all that was needed to put Tech over the edge this season. A team that lost eight of 11 games in 1983 now is 3-0 and ranked 12th in the nation.

Curry was known as a solid, if unspectacular, overachiever during his days as a center at Georgia Tech and during 10 years in the National Football League. The Yellow Jackets reflect his plug-ahead, stress-the-fundamentals approach.

The defense ranks sixth nationally in points allowed per game (10.0) and eighth in yards allowed (253.7). The Yellow Jackets' ball-control offense is sixth in total yards (452) and 10th in rushing (276.3). They have forced 10 turnovers and committed two.

They opened the season with a 16-6 victory over Alabama, then ranked 19th, and followed by beating The Citadel, 48-3. Next came Tech's biggest victory in years. After taking a 21-0 halftime lead over No. 12 Clemson Saturday, then losing it in little more than a quarter, the Yellow Jackets scored in the last 33 seconds and won, 28-21.

Clemson Coach Danny Ford said he had told his players Georgia Tech was vastly improved from the team they had beaten, 41-14, the year before. "But I guess it didn't soak in too good," he said.

On Tech's campus and elsewhere in the Atlanta area, it has sunk in quite well. The Yellow Jackets have their highest ranking since the 1966 team went 9-2 and lost to Florida in the Orange Bowl. Since Clemson still is on Atlantic Coast Conference probation and defending champion Maryland is not on its schedule this year, Tech, which will play North Carolina State on Saturday, could win the ACC title in its second season of eligibility.

"Obviously, people are very enthusiastic," Curry said in a telephone interview this week. "We had two tremendous wins at home and that's caused a lot of excitement."

So has that No. 12 ranking.

Senior tailback Robert Lavette, who is 11th in the nation in all-purpose running and 13th in rushing, said, "It (the ranking) isn't too high with me. No. 1 would be fine. But that's good. Now we've got some respect."

But Curry, perhaps mindful that Tech lost 19 of 22 games in his first two seasons (1980-81), is feeling restrained.

"I know we're not the 12th-best team in the country," he said. "Certainly, we've played well. But it's a little premature. My staff and I are very guarded. We're aware of the good luck we've had."

He paused. "But I have to say it's a warm feeling."

Last Nov. 26, it was a cold and empty feeling following Georgia's sixth straight victory over Tech. That game gave Curry an 11-32-1 record at his alma mater and a self-imposed mandate.

"You reach a point where you've got to make a move," he said. "I had been here four years and knew it was time. We were doing some of the right things. It was only the degree that had to be changed."

So, at a team meeting three days later, players turned in equipment and received back what Curry calls "goal books." He said, "I told them to write down personal and team goals. And then we got to work."

Tony Kepano, a senior guard from Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge, Va., recalled that meeting. "When Coach passed out the goal books," he said, "we kinda looked at each other and said, 'What other major college would do this? This is like kindergarten.'

"But we were willing to try anything. We were at a low point. We had to trust him. At first it became a joke, then it became an obsession."

Through a strenuous conditioning program that included intensified weight training, players reported to spring practice in better shape than ever before. "And we had the best spring practice we've ever had," Curry said, still sounding pleased.

Insisting that college athletes regularly fill out goal books might seem incongruous for most coaches, but perseverance and discipline have been central themes for Curry for a long time. "Everything has always come very hard to me," he said. "It took me four years to make my high school team and I didn't start at Tech until the fourth game of my senior year."

Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, his coach at Baltimore, says having to struggle ultimately helped Curry. "He had really strong character -- intelligent, dedicated and sincere," Shula said. "He knew what his limitations were, and oftentimes players like Bill become the best coaches, rather than the gifted ones who don't have the patience to work with someone."

Curry said he "relearned humility" with a 1-9-1 record in his first season at Georgia Tech. This year, he learned something else, something about his team.

"In 31 years in football, I had never seen an inferior team lose a big lead, then come back and regain momentum like we did against Clemson in the final drive," he said. "Not with a long pass or fluke play -- just drive it 56 yards on nine running plays.

"Our players knew what they had to do and they did it. And when it was over, and I saw the excitement on their faces, it just melted me."