The pollsters who ranked North Carolina among the nation's elite college football teams before this season obviously didn't check with Coach Dick Crum.

Crum was suffering from no such illusions. "We pretty much knew that the first month of the season would be pretty tough," he said in a telephone conversation yesterday.

Well, after the first five dates of the season, Crum found his vibes accurate. The Tar Heels were 1-4, including losses to Navy and Wake Forest and what the players felt was an embarrassing defeat by Boston College.

North Carolina rebounded, sort of, the last two weeks and defeated North Carolina State and Memphis State. But the Tar Heels still aren't one of the nation's better teams and are fighting for respectability in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Crum expects the struggling to continue Saturday when the Tar Heels play Maryland in Chapel Hill.

Crum was asked if, considering his team's improvement the last two weeks, the Tar Heels were about even with Maryland.

"No," he said firmly. "We just haven't won enough. We're still a ways off. We're not where we want to be at this point of the season; we should be better. One thing I have been pleased with is the morale up to this point; otherwise, we wouldn't have won anything."

North Carolina isn't without talent. Ethan Horton, a senior tailback, has rushed for 925 yards this season, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He is being pushed by sophomore William Humes, who rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns against N.C. State.

As usual, there is an all-America on defense: this year, it's inside linebacker Micah Moon.

But many of the important positions, especially on defense, are manned by relatively new players. Reuben Davis, a redshirt freshman, plays defensive tackle. Noel McEachern, another second-year freshman, plays outside linebacker.

Donnie Wallace and Carlton Bailey, redshirt freshmen, split time at nose guard. And Eric Starr, a freshman, is a starting defensive back.

"One of the reasons we knew it would be tough the first four weeks or so is that it would take time for all those young defensive players to settle in," Crum said.

Even now, North Carolina ranks last in the ACC in pass defense and sixth out of eight teams in rushing defense (not to mention last in passing offense).

Carl Carr, a junior linebacker from Alexandria, said, "We're just now getting to the point where the young guys are used to the veterans on defense. We're starting to play together; for a while, we were just playing on individual instincts and not as a group."

That period included the opener against Navy, a game Crum says, "we feel we should have won." The Tar Heels seemed defenseless against big plays, and the Midshipmen scored a 33-30 upset.

Boston College's 52 points say even more about the problems the Tar Heels were experiencing. "BC was just a whole lot better than we were," Crum said. "At that point of the season, they could have played us five more times and they'd have beaten us all five."

Especially if UNC showed up with the same defense. "People were saying our defense was like Swiss cheese, it had so many holes," Carr said, "and they said our defense couldn't stop a nosebleed.

"BC beat us pretty good, and that brought us out more than anything. Guys were saying, 'Hey, we can't let this happen.' Every program may need that sort of thing from time to time to force some soul-searching."

Meanwhile, as fullback Eddie Colson said, "We got quite a bit of heat for not living up to all those expectations."

North Carolina lost to Clemson, 20-12, on a 76-yard touchdown pass, and Wake Forest by 14-3 in the next three weeks. But Crum began seeing evidence of improvement, just when it was absolutely necessary to save the rest of the season.

The Tar Heels got a touchdown and two-point conversion with 31 seconds left to beat N.C. State. Two long drives in the second half -- plus a fourth-quarter field goal -- to upset Memphis State, 30-27.

One criticism of the Tar Heels is that they rarely get fired up. But Carr noted, "After the Memphis State game, we had the most excited locker room I've ever seen at North Carolina.

"Most guys realized we needed that going into the Maryland game. It's done a lot for our confidence. It's been really upbeat around here this week."

The season has been a turnaround in more ways than one. In the past three years, the Tar Heels started off quickly, moved up in the rankings and fell off toward the end.

Despite the frustrations and poor start this year, the Tar Heels could reach .500 with a victory over Maryland, putting themselves back in the bowl picture and the conference race.

Carolina has games with Maryland, Georgia Tech and Virginia, all in Chapel Hill. "We still have a lot at stake," Carr said.