In the old pictures, in those that dominate the Naval Academy file, George Welsh wears the grin of a salty sea dog with a story to tell. The crown of his baseball cap has lost its shape and his blue letter jacket, buttoned to the neck, looks as if it belongs under a dribble of moth balls, stuffed in the nether reaches of a cedar chest.

But in the new pictures, in those that depict Welsh as coach of the Virginia Cavaliers, who play ninth-ranked West Virginia Saturday at 12:20 p.m. in Morgantown, he wears a button-down shirt and club tie, and has the warm gaze of one weathered by the weight of the journey, though hardly resigned.

And you remember his options: "My choices were to go to work for U.S. Steel or Campbell Soup Co. or become a coach."

On this day in his office, over a glass of tepid water and a steady procession of mentholyptus cough drops, George Welsh is remembering the time Notre Dame's executive vice president and athletic director came by to wish him well after the Irish had beaten his squad of tough but overmatched Midshipmen. The memory is more laughable than it is unbearable. Welsh can't remember the year.

"We never beat the Irish," he is saying. "We always lost. It could have been any time. The people at Notre Dame have had many chances to see my teams play. And I always thought, one day they'll come to the locker room to congratulate me on how hard we played and we'll have won. But that never happened, of course. I only dreamed it. And now comes the rumor that I'm going there. I swear, there's nothing to that . . . It's not even in my mind."

Welsh, 51, has had his share of distractions since the Cavaliers beat Wake Forest two weeks ago. With last Saturday open, Welsh looked forward to the extra time to prepare for West Virginia and savor his team's success. The Cavaliers are 5-1-1 overall, losers only to Clemson in the season opener, and 2-0-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference games.

First came talk of Gerry Faust's less-than-impressive reign at Notre Dame, and word that Welsh, in his third year at Virginia, was a likely candidate to replace him. A storm of telephone interviews came as a result, and denials that Welsh had been contacted about the job.

On top of that, talk of the Cavaliers going to a bowl game swept across town with all the vigor of a whirlwind. The local paper ran a list of possibilities and quotes from bowl representatives. Welsh, seasoned enough to know the horrid effects of an emotional letdown, avoided indulging in talk of mere probabilities.

"Everything gets harder when you start winning," he said. "Your expectations rise and it puts more pressure on the team. I can't say I'm enjoying it right now. The week off in some ways was good because we got some people back healthy. But, in other ways, it was bad.

"More than anything, I think we've been reading too much about bowl games lately. Yeah, maybe bowl is a bad word around here right now. At Penn State, it's part of the scenery, like when the leaves change you start hearing bowl talk. But here, it's different. All in all, I think up to now the team has handled it well."

Traditionally, November is the toughest month in the college game. No player is without his bruises and pain sometimes brings on surrender, which would devastate Virginia as it prepares for a game of national significance.

West Virginia, which has won 20 of its last 22 games at home and is coming off a big win over Penn State, has lost only to Maryland this season. The Mountaineers have won the last six against Virginia.. The last was in 1980, when the Mountaineers won, 32-18.

"One of the things we talk about as a staff," Welsh said, "is winning the conference championship. But I don't know if we're capable of doing that right now. We need to win the last three, and we have a good chance. But I thought that it would take four or five years before we had a good shot at it.

"A game like this, which is supposed to have 12 bowl representatives in attendance, is good for everybody. But it puts extra pressure on the players. I take it in stride, though. I'm not 35 any more. The first flushes of success, that's not the case for me, but I'm enjoying it. I just think we have to temper a lot of things here until we finish out the season, I really do."

When Welsh worked as an assistant coach for 10 years under Rip Engle and Joe Paterno at Penn State, he learned firsthand how difficult it is to labor under a history of great expectations. With talk of his replacing Faust at Notre Dame, Welsh has examined the climate of good fortune under which he has served Virginia. He knows that, unlike Faust, he has stepped into a program that had never prospered. Coming off a 6-5 season, he already has performed what some consider a minor miracle: lifting the Cavaliers out of the mire in which they had only three winning seasons in their last 31.

"If the season ends well," he said, "I'll say this was one of the most exciting times I've had in football. But only if it ends well. It's still a great struggle. We could lose three out of our last four. On the other hand, we could win them all. Everybody knows how that would feel. Or do we?"