During Army week, Navy players spend much of their time talking about how important the Army-Navy game is. It means nothing, yet it means everything. As Navy defensive tackle and cocaptain Eric Rutherford said, "There are no superstars in this game. No one is going to the pros. People around the country just pick the team they like and root for it."

But the 85th meeting between Army (6-3-1) and Navy (4-5-1), today (12:10 p.m., WDVM-TV-9) before a sellout crowd of 71,580 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, features a twist. Navy is coming off a 38-21 upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina two weeks ago.

And, believe it or not, Army may not be the biggest game of this Navy season.

"I know this sounds kind of like blasphemy around here," Rutherford said, "but South Carolina, coming in ranked second at our home field, after our (29-0) beating by Syracuse, was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We hardly ever play No. 2 and beat them like we did.

"Of course, Army's Army. Years from now, I want to look at an Army guy and know we got the last lick."

As long as Rutherford has been a Midshipman, Navy has not lost to Army. In fact, Army hasn't won this game since 1977. In the past seven years, Navy won six times and, in 1981, there was a 3-3 tie.

"Our problem the last several years had been all the pressure," said Army quarterback Nate Sassaman, who runs the wishbone offense that leads the nation in rushing with 336.6 yards per game. "It's been very emotional and we haven't performed well in the first half."

This year seems to be different. First, the game has returned to Philadelphia after a trial run in the Rose Bowl last season. Then, in addition to Navy's South Carolina "angle," Army comes in assured of its first winning season since 1977 and set for its first bowl game, no matter what happens today; the Cadets will play Michigan State in the inaugural Cherry Bowl Dec. 22 in the Pontiac Silverdome. This is Navy's season closer.

"I think this is a much, much improved Army team," said Navy Coach Gary Tranquill. Why? The wishbone, which Army Coach Jim Young installed this season after seeing it work for Air Force.

It has worked even better for the Cadets. Junior fullback Doug Black, who failed to make the varsity as a freshman, is seven yards away from a 1,000-yard season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, with 10 touchdowns. Sassaman has gained 848 and averages 5.2 yards every time he runs. He certainly isn't a passing threat -- then again, does he need to be? He has thrown just 51 passes in 10 games, and has completed 24.

"Army is not a finesse team," Tranquill said. "They run a power-type wishbone. If you have watched Auburn, you've seen what it looks like. They run a lot of counters and other things that aren't truly wishbone plays."

Army averages 392.6 yards per game; Navy's defense gives up 367.9. Navy lost to two wishbone teams this fall, Arkansas and Air Force. "At least we'll be more familiar with it," Tranquill said.

Navy tailback Rich Clouse believes the Midshipmen should win.

"I don't think they're as good as some of the teams we've played," he said of Army. "Even with their record, I still think it's a mismatch. We should be favored. (Odds makers rate the game even.) With no flukes or anything, we're going to beat them."

Usually, this is a week for tunnel vision. However, Navy's star running back, Napoleon McCallum, whose season ended with a September injury, was a popular topic all week after Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell urged the academy to redshirt him.

"I wish it hadn't come up this week," said Navy Athletic Director J.O. Coppedge. "I enjoyed the article, and we'll talk about it, but they (Navy's players) have their minds set on one thing. Take Coach Tranquill. He doesn't have time to talk about that."

Several other traditional games will be played today. No. 11 Auburn will try to clinch a Sugar Bowl berth by defeating Alabama. If Alabama wins, Louisiana State would represent the Southeastern Conference against Nebraska Jan. 1 and Auburn would go to the Liberty Bowl to play Arkansas. Coach Ray Perkins said a victory would not salvage Alabama's 4-6 season.

Third-ranked Florida, banned from the Sugar Bowl by the SEC because of pending NCAA sanctions, ends by playing at No. 12 Florida State. No. 8 Boston College plays at Division I-AA Holy Cross.

The confusing Southwest Conference race finally will be decided. Houston, despite four losses overall, makes the Cotton Bowl if it beats Rice, even should a three-way SWC title tie materialize. For Texas to go to the Cotton Bowl, Houston must lose and the Longhorns defeat Texas A&M. If Houston and Texas both lose, Southern Methodist, which travels to Nevada-Las Vegas today, would go to the Cotton Bowl.