Just how good is this Maryland football team, anyway?

One national publication predicts the Terrapins will win the national championship. Another, which has two ranking systems, places them 19th in one and first in another. In the wire service polls that came out yesterday, they were ranked seventh by the Associated Press and ninth by United Press International. Most preseason forecasts have Maryland ranked among the top 10 college teams in the country.

Coach Bobby Ross said recently, "I feel we're going to be a good team. Now, just how, I don't know. I just don't. Breaks can have an incredible effect on your season.

"We're not good enough to play poorly and win. But I know one thing: this is the first time in my career when I've gone into the season feeling I have a 50-50 chance of winning every game."

Some say that no matter how good Maryland is, it can't win a national title because the schedule is too tough. Still others believe Maryland isn't on a par yet with Oklahoma and Auburn.

Ask senior quarterback Stan Gelbaugh how good the Terrapins are and he'll refer to their final seven games of last season. Maryland won them all, including a 28-27 victory over Tennessee in the Sun Bowl, averaging 39.6 points per game in that stretch en route to a 9-3 season.

And in most of those seven games, Maryland played well below its potential for an entire half.

"I think we can be as good as we were the last seven games of last year," Gelbaugh said. "Which is to say, we won. With our schedule, that's quite an accomplishment. But I think we're good enough to win every game on our schedule."

Fullback Rick Badanjek also couldn't help but define this season's potential by again going back to those seven games.

"Remember, we scored all those points in the second half," he said. "Does that mean if we actually play well for two halves that we will score even more and be even better than those last seven?"

Certainly, Maryland's task would be easier with a softer schedule. Those who aren't convinced of Maryland's potential look at the first four games -- Penn State on Sept. 7, at Boston College, West Virginia and at Michigan -- and figure the Terrapins could slip right out of the top 20 (and the major bowl picture) by the last weekend of September.

It's that first month that should tell whether Maryland is capable of being top-ranked. As senior guard Len Lynch said, "We're looking forward to the first four games so we'll see just how good we really are."

Even without games by which to measure, it's fairly easy to tell even today that the Terrapins are a top 10 team.

The offense should be among the best in the country. Maryland comes out with a senior quarterback (Gelbaugh) who never has been sacked and who hands off to three backs who each could rush for 1,000 yards if they weren't in the same backfield.

One of the backs, senior fullback Badanjek, scored 15 touchdowns last year. He says of this upcoming season, "I'm tired of all third-and-short runs. I want to break a few more long ones."

The two tailbacks, Tommy Neal and Alvin Blount, run with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash and can turn screen passes into downfield danger for opponents.

Gelbaugh can throw to a sophomore receiver, Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof, who runs with 4.37 speed. After one of his 25 receptions last year, Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' vice president for personnel development, called Ra'oof "a young Wes Chandler."

An opposing defense also will have to contend with 6-foot-6 tight end Ferrell Edmunds, the team's best athlete, plus senior receiver Eric Holder, and any two of those backs.

Put all that talent and experience behind a senior-dominated line and you've got an offense that has the potential to do what it wants.

The only question marks seem to be at center and at kicker: All-ACC center Kevin Glover has graduated; and kicker Ramon Paredes, who is replacing Jess Atkinson, Maryland's all-time leading scorer, has not attempted a field goal or extra point in a game situation.

The defense isn't the attraction in College Park, but everybody in the starting 11 has playing experience. The linebackers, inside and out, are a strength. So is the starting secondary with the Covingtons (Al and Keeta) and Donald Brown.

When football people talk about getting breaks, they most often mean avoiding injury. Some teams, such as Nebraska and Oklahoma, can withstand injuries better than others. Maryland doesn't have exceptional depth; Ross still is building that sort of reserve strength. But it's unlikely the Terrapins will have as many injuries this season as last.

Maryland, it appears, could sustain an injury to one of its skill position players and not drop off appreciably. An injury to one of the starting linemen -- on either offense or defense -- could be more damaging.

But, Gelbaugh noted, "We had injuries last year (including one to starting quarterback Frank Reich), but when one guy falls out you try to pick up the cart and go on. That's what I tried to do last year. That's what several guys did, successfully."

There are people who've been around Maryland for years who have heard this all before. Maryland hasn't been picked No. 1 by anybody in quite a while. The Terrapins were good almost every year in the 1970s under Jerry Claiborne by playing strong defense and having solid special teams play.

But those teams always had problems beating opponents with speed, primarily because Maryland didn't have much at the skill positions on offense.

Now the Terrapins have as much speed, if not more, at the skill positions than almost anybody on the schedule.

In forecasts in which Maryland is not picked No. 1, Oklahoma, Florida and Washington often are placed higher. Still, four years ago, the Terrapins didn't deserve to be mentioned with those teams.

For Sport magazine to have picked the Terrapins No. 1, for Inside Sports to compute them as having the best power ranking, for ABC-TV to rank them No. 2 and for Sports Illustrated to make them No. 5, a lot of people must think Maryland has made a major jump.

As Badanjek has said: "It's time for Maryland to take that step to the next level, and be really, really good."