Maryland has beaten Virginia 12 straight times, by a total of 366-85. And there are those who think Maryland's offense can score nearly as many points today alone.

Starting at 12:15 at sold-out Scott Stadium, 18th-ranked Maryland will be trying to win its second consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship. There's a twist this year, however. Virginia isn't a prop in the 49th game of this series; the Cavaliers are bidding for the championship, too, and are quite capable of winning it.

It isn't logical to anticipate Virginia losing to Maryland by such a score as 23-3, which was the result last season, or 45-14, which was the final score the previous season, or 48-7, which was what happened the year before.

Virginia's 7-1-2 overall record (3-0-2 in the ACC) suggests this will be different.

Maryland Coach Bobby Ross, who grew up in Richmond, says this will "probably be the biggest football game ever played in the state of Virginia." And considering that a record crowd may attend, Ross is probably right.

"I don't know why some people have the notion Virginia is lacking talent," he added. "They're good. I'm telling you Virginia is good."

The fact that either team is playing for the title surprises some. After all, Virginia lost its season opener, 55-0, to Clemson, and was shellshocked the first few days of the following week.

And Maryland, after losing its first two home games, was only a drive away from losing at West Virginia to go 0-3.

Now, here they are. Virginia is unbeaten since Clemson -- nine straight games -- and Maryland has won five straight to raise its record to 7-3 (4-0 in the ACC).

Virginia's George Welsh, the ACC's coach of the year, said today he is "not surprised" his team has done so well. "Any time you have a good defense, you stand a chance."

Ross admits he is "amazed" his Terrapins could come back to win seven of eight games despite losing the starting quarterback for four games, playing without a senior defensive lineman for the last three and having to beat Miami and Clemson away from Byrd Stadium.

The teams, while their seasons show some parallels, are as different as can be.

Maryland, in the past five weeks, has become synonomous with the word "offense." The Terrapins, averaging 41 points per game during their winning streak, have the No. 8 offense in the nation, statistically.

This afternoon, the Terrapins will run and they will pass. There is no use speculating on what any one player might do because defenses -- ask Miami and Clemson -- have no idea which Maryland player is likely to do the most damage.

Virginia, on the other hand, is defense. Throw away the Clemson game -- "a freak," Ross calls it -- and the Cavaliers have allowed only 12.1 points per game -- best in the ACC and among the best in the nation.

Virginia has permitted 10 touchdowns in its past nine games. The Cavaliers' formula is simple. Stop the other guy, control the ball, throw in some big plays.

Virginia has three all-ACC defenders: safety Lester Lyles, nose guard David Bond and tackle Ron Mattes, all seniors.

The Cavaliers' big plays come largely from freshman receiver John Ford, who has averaged 30 yards per reception and has seven touchdowns.

But Virginia's primary offensive weapon is the run. Howard Petty (747 yards), Barry Word (510 yards), Steve Morse and Antonio Rice give it the second-best rushing offense in the league.

And the fact that Maryland has the league's top defense against the run makes for a most interesting matchup.

To best appreciate how these teams reached this game, look at what happened earlier in the season.

First, Virginia. The Cavaliers were assumed by many to be a nonfactor back in September when they were trounced by Clemson.

"We had enough guys with maturity, though, to get it together by the end of the week," Lyles said.

And Don Majkowski emerged as a better-than-adequate quarterback. In Ross' estimate, "That quarterback is really underrated."

Last week, Majkowski completed 20 of 29 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown against North Carolina.

"He's gotten better and better every week," Welsh said of Majkowski, who was intercepted eight times in the first six games and zero times the past four.

The development of young players is a large part of the story at Maryland. Ferrell Edmunds, a freshman tight end, moved into the starting lineup. J.D. Maarleveld, a 300-pound offensive tackle who transferred from Notre Dame, also became a starter. Keeta Covington, a sophomore, went to the defensive secondary.

"It was risky," Ross said. "We (the coaching staff) said to ourselves, 'Let's bite the bullet and go with them.' "

The risk was not only going with young players, but hoping that the supplanted veterans wouldn't go into the tank. Ross said such seniors as Bobby Gunderman, Greg Harraka, Gil Hoffman and Ron Fazio didn't do that and it's "hard to describe how important they've been to our progression this season."

Welsh and Ross recalled a Touchdown Club luncheon for the teams in August and the fact that someone suggested the teams might meet in November for the ACC championship.

"I remember that," Welsh said. "It was just August banquet chatter." Or so it was thought.