Oklahoma's Barry Switzer calls them fiction. Auburn's Pat Dye says they can wreck you in a day.

They are rankings, and those in Sport magazine say the Maryland Terrapins will be the No. 1 football team in the country this fall. Others say the Terrapins are No. 2; almost all say they're in the top 10.

Perhaps that is why Coach Bobby Ross shuts himself in his office with the curtains drawn against the June heat, watching Maryland football highlights. Ross is trying to make sure Maryland's football team is as good as the preseason polls say it is.

Sometime between last fall and this June, the public perception of Maryland took a turn -- from a team that occasionally was good for a thriller into a legitimate contender for the national championship.

Last year's team, which beat Tennessee in the Sun Bowl and finished ranked 11th by the Associated Press, returns 17 starters and most of an offense that pulled off the greatest comeback in NCAA history to beat Miami, the defending national champion at the time. And it faces a schedule that includes three teams ranked in the top 20 last year, and five bowl teams, including Miami, Boston College, Michigan and Virginia. Surviving those teams could justify the rankings.

Ross has taken the Terrapins to three bowl games in three years and won back-to-back Atlantic Coast Conference titles, last season going 5-0 in the league and 9-3 overall. But the real change in the perception of Maryland as a nationally competitive team seems to have started with the Miami game, in which the Terrapins overcame a 31-0 deficit at halftime to beat Miami, 42-40, setting the NCAA record for biggest comeback.

"The No. 1 thing was the win in Miami," Ross said. "Although we're still not well known in some regions, that had a direct effect on projecting the program nationally. I guess it was the manner in which we beat them."

Now that Maryland and Ross have reached a certain height after three years of major upsets and minor bowl games, their status as a contender could work against them. Nobody likes a favorite, and that would account for Ross' slight frown of concern when the polls are mentioned.

"It's what we've wanted," Ross said. "It's what we've wanted and now we have to learn to deal with it."

Most coaches tend to ignore polls, if not belittle them, in an effort to avoid too much pressure. Auburn's Dye has learned to play down his prospects, attributing much of his team's inconsistency last year to being ranked No. 1 in the preseason.

"It was a challenge to live up to the rankings in 1982 and '83," he said. "But it did not serve us well in 1984. We enjoyed being No. 1 for a day or two, but we just weren't ready for it. We weren't that good. People overestimated us."

Oklahoma's Switzer tends to be irritated by polls.

"I call them fiction magazines," he said. "It always amuses me when they seem to know so much about our talent and they've never even been here.

"I know what my team can do. I don't need a tabloid to tell me. I can predict, barring injury, how good we're going to be. And I can tell when we aren't going to be any good, either."

The trouble with great expectations starts when you don't live up to them, and Oklahoma fans are infamous for their fair-weather attitude toward Switzer. Two losses, and the fanatic fan is liable to climb down the stands and up your back.

"It creates pressure because it creates expectations from the fans," Switzer said. "That's the problem. It's when the polls are so far off, they rank you in the top five and you know you aren't even in the top 20. They start wondering what's wrong with you. That's when you hear the grumbling. Those fiction writers give them another excuse to attack you."

Then there is the danger of complacency -- players can forget they still have to play. "My biggest concern," Ross said, "is that they will start to believe what they read."

Ross says overall the ranking "doesn't bother me." It could even turn out to be an advantage, giving the Terrapins something to shoot for like it initially did for Auburn.

"It's not going to change one iota of what we do," he said. "We'll get more overall support, more people will become involved."

One positive offshoot of the rankings and schedule is ticket sales. Maryland has set a record for season tickets, with 20,000 already sold. Single-game tickets for the Sept. 7 opener against Penn State are sold out; the only way to get a seat for the game is to buy the season ticket package.

"That's one thing that has changed," said quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, expected to be the starter this season succeeding Frank Reich, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. "Everybody wants tickets from me."

But for all of the gained prestige of the rankings, Maryland will lose an element of surprise.

"The first year we were a little bit of a surprise; the second year I really didn't think we were that good," Ross said. "This past year people thought we were good, but they still thought they could beat us. We have never been an intimidator, and we aren't in that category yet. But we won't be overlooked anymore."

An underdog can have a distinct advantage in an emotional game, and Ross and Penn State's Joe Paterno already are jockeying for position in the season opener.

"I would say they're one of the five best teams in the country," Paterno said. "I would say we have to be the underdog for a change. Anybody who plays them this year is."

But as one Maryland staffer put it, "Joe talked that way when they were three-touchdown favorites." Paterno neglects to mention that he has almost as many players returning as Maryland does, and the Terrapins haven't beaten the Nittany Lions since 1961. Penn State won, 25-24, last year.

"I don't agree with him," Ross said. "I see us as even. Penn State is always good because Joe is always there and he always has talent."

The Penn State game is looming larger every week. Given the tough schedule, it seems important to get off to a good start. That's one thing the Terrapins didn't do last year, losing their first two games, to Syracuse and Vanderbilt, before winning nine of the next 10.

For that reason, 60 players have decided to stay on or near campus for summer school and to train together.

"The attitude toward us is a little different," Gelbaugh said. "People expect more from you, and if you lose they'll say they gave us too much credit. We'll be fighting some of that. The last couple of years we've been talking about respect. Now we have to prove it."