There were those who looked at the University of Miami's football schedule before the season began and said with conviction that if Auburn didn't beat the Hurricanes in the opener, then Florida would the following week.

Florida State and Michigan would further ruin Miami, the prognosticators figured, and by the time November arrived, the Hurricanes' national championship would be just a memory. A repeat title? No way. Even Sam Jankovich, Miami's upbeat athletic director, recalled today his thoughts before the season:

"I said that if this team finished 7-5, it would be a good season. And I still say it."

It hasn't worked out that way. Michigan and Florida State did beat the Hurricanes, who opened the season with four games -- three against ranked teams and all on the road -- within 19 days.

But Miami, with star quarterback Bernie Kosar, is 8-2 and making a strong bid to defend its national championship going into Saturday's televised game here with Maryland.

If the sixth-ranked Hurricanes can beat Maryland and Boston College (Nov. 24), they could easily get the New Year's Day bowl chance needed to become only the 12th team to win consecutive national championships, according to both polls.

Miami's season has been most improbable, not only because the schedule was so strong, but because the Hurricanes moved so easily through the coaching transition from Howard Schnellenberger to Jimmy Johnson.

When Schnellenberger left his position as head coach here to accept a multimillion-dollar offer from the Washington Federals of the USFL, it wasn't the biggest surprise in the world.

As Jankovich said of Schnellenberger's departure:

"It had been under a great deal of speculation for a number of years. Three years ago, the Kentucky thing surfaced, then the Alabama thing, then the New York Giants.

"Any time there's smoke, there's fire," Jankovich said. "It really wasn't all that shocking. It was going to happen sometime."

Selecting Johnson, who had built Oklahoma State into a strong team in five years, was something of a surprise, if not a shock.

And it was equally surprising that Johnson elected to accept the Miami offer.

"I know," Johnson said this afternoon in his office. "Why take a chance, leaving a program you built over five years, to go into a no-win situation? The whole thing was, I wanted to live in south Florida. I mean, I wanted to live here."

Johnson knew there were concerns about changes he might make. Miami won the national championship last season, but it had won over a lot of fans a few years earlier when Schnellenberger, with his pro-style offense, let quarterbacks like Jim Kelly and Kosar cut the humid air with passes.

Kosar, only a sophomore, said this week he was worried the changes might affect him. First, there was the fear Johnson might install the wishbone. "Yeah, the wishbone," Kosar said, reliving the fright.

"We met, though," he said, "and I was assured that there wasn't going to be that type of change."

Johnson acknowledged today, "I knew the biggest concern everybody had was not that I was a good football coach, but that for most of my career I'd been associated with running football: the wishbone at Oklahoma (where he was an assistant), and Ernest Anderson, who gained 1,900 yards at Oklahoma State.

"It would have been foolish of me to come in here like a drill instructor and say, 'This is the way we're going to do things,' " Johnson said. "The players have had success. The coaching staff has had success. They don't want somone to come in here and tell them, 'We're gonna change things.'

"They didn't realize I'd utilize the talent available. I don't care how we do it, so long as we get it in the end zone."

The talent here, especially the quarterback, can get it in the end zone as well, if not better, than any other college team in the country. There are those who say that Kosar, who is 6 feet 5, is every bit as good as Boston College's Doug Flutie. Kosar had a slump early in the season; he threw six interceptions against Michigan and was sacked six times by Florida State.

"A combination of things caused the slump," Kosar said, including the schedule.

But otherwise, Kosar has passed for 300 yards six times this season, including the last three games. Against Pitt, Kosar left the field on crutches, but only after completing a school-record 29 passes (42 attempts) for 351 yards, in only three quarters.

Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said earlier this week, "You hear that he's not fast. Well, maybe not, but he evades pass rushes. He can see things all over the field, and gets away from the rush with his vision.

"He throws off balance; he throws going right, going left. He's just tough," Ross said. "And he's involved with an intricate audible system. You'll see him look, look, look at one receiver. Then he'll whirl around to the other side and throw. And the receiver is right there. Kosar knows he's there."

Johnson said Kosar's intelligence puts him a step ahead of other quarterbacks. The coaches can cover more ground and explore new areas quickly.

"He's so aware of what's out there that we give him a lot of freedom," Johnson said. "Not just to audible, but the freedom in scanning the whole field. With a quarterback who wasn't as sharp as Bernie, we might very well restrict him: 'On this play, you throw to this receiver, or if you read the strong safety, to that receiver.' Bernie doesn't need that."

The impression is that Kosar, after the initial worries, is equally impressed with how the Hurricanes have responded to Johnson.

When asked to compare Schnellenberger and Johnson, Kosar said, "Coach Schnellenberger ran things similar to a military atmosphere. And I think Coach Johnson is a players' coach. We meet every Thursday night at 10 p.m., and just talk."

"I think it's worked well. It just goes to show you there's more than one way to run a team . . . "

The results, on the field, are being achieved with Kosar throwing to four receivers, each of whom has 30 or more catches this season. Eddie Brown and Stanley Shakespeare are thrown the long passes; tight end Willie Smith (50 catches) does the yeoman's work.

A relatively unknown fulback, Alonzo Highsmith, has rushed for 100 yards or more five times and made it so that opposing defenses can't tee off on Kosar.

Miami is waiting for Maryland, and Boston College. The undefeated Miami Dolphins are the primary focus here, but that doesn't make the Hurricanes' run at another national championship any less significant.

"We needed this second year very badly, much worse than anybody would ever realize, with a lot of people talking about the way we won it last year," said Jankovich, referring to those who thought Nebraska or Auburn was just as deserving. "Right now, I think our football program has arrived."