What could become the rarest of local college football seasons begins dramatically today with Maryland in contention for its first national title in 34 years and the Naval Academy's Napoleon McCallum rushing for what might be the glory of a Heisman Trophy.

At 12:20 p.m. in College Park, Maryland will attempt to overcome 24 years of failure against Penn State at sold-out Byrd Stadium in a game that has attracted more attention than any in the school's history. And in Annapolis at 7:30, McCallum's return for a fifth and final season -- which was once thought to be impossible at a military academy -- provides the spice for Navy's season opener against North Carolina in sold-out Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

College football in this area rarely has attracted so much attention. Is it really Dallas Week? Even at Redskin Park, former Maryland linebacker Neal Olkewicz found the time to wager $20 on the Terrapins, who are one-touchdown favorites, with former Penn State linebacker Rich Milot.

In College Park, the pressure might eclipse the temperature, which could reach 100 and has prompted Maryland to have 1,200 pounds of ice and electric fans on the sideline to create a cool breeze near the bench. Beating Penn State is more than something Maryland would like to do. Some of the players feel it is imperative, not just because Penn State has won 27 of 28 games in their series, including 20 straight, but because Maryland wants to justify being ranked as high as No. 1 in the preseason.

"This is the biggest game that'll be played in a long, long time at College Park," Maryland senior offensive tackle Tony Edwards said. "This first game could make or break a season. They've sold out of every ticket months ago. People are going crazy. If we don't go out and have a good one, everybody'll say: 'Hey, what's going on here?'

"We just want to show people that we're good," he said. "We can't go out and lose 17-16 or 25-24. We've got to win. We've just got to show them we can beat them. Whether it's by a point or a lot, I don't care. It could even be by half a point. People are always telling us the stat: 'You guys haven't beaten Penn State since 1961.' We got to prove it's not a hex."

Maryland Coach Bobby Ross has said all week he wants his team to treat this like any other game. From all indications, there's no chance of that. J.D. Maarleveld, a senior offensive tackle, said: "That's all we think about in our room."

Rick Badanjek, Maryland's starting fullback, went even further. "If we lose that game," he said, "I don't know what would happen to this team. I hope nothing bad, but who knows what would happen?"

The Terrapins, a team of experience, have had the best preseason of any Maryland team in the last decade. The offense might be better than last year, when Maryland averaged nearly 40 points and 499 yards in the final seven games.

As Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said last week, "If we're not careful, if somebody gets big-headed . . . we could get our ears kicked in."

Maryland's defense -- based on last year's performances -- doesn't inspire the use of any superlatives, but it should be at least more than adequate.

But Maryland has been good before and still lost to Penn State. In fact, the bigger the game has been, the more prone Maryland has been to lose. In the 18 most heavily attended Maryland games, the Terrapins have lost 14. Of the seven home games with crowds of 50,000 or more, Maryland has won one.

"Tradition doesn't win or lose football games," Ross said. "The key for us is to establish both the run and the pass. And defensively, we have to keep the big play out of the game. They've really hurt us in the past with the big play. We have to try and stop the big play, and primarily that means (tailback) D.J. Dozier."

Penn State has worked harder this preseason than in most others, according to Paterno and his players, in an attempt to rebound from last year's 6-5 record and one-sided losses at the end of the season to Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.

The Lions, with seven seniors starting, have gone to a 4-4 defense. "They've got the usual Penn State defense," Ross said. "Big, fast and hard hitting."

Another concern for Ross has to be the fact that the Terrapins have started 0-2 in two of the last three seasons. In each case, the offense has taken a while to get started.

The biggest pressure may be on trainers from both teams to keep players from succumbing to the heat. J.J. Bush, Maryland's longtime trainer, said players will be toweled off and given liquids at every opportunity.

Perhaps by the time Navy begins its first home night game, the air will have cooled. Navy will be looking at a different Carolina team than the one it beat last season in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels, a rather unimaginative run-oriented offensive team in the past, will pass often, Coach Dick Crum has said.

"From everything we've heard, they're going to throw," Navy Coach Gary Tranquill said. "That's what we've heard, and that's what we saw when we scouted their spring game."

Navy's offensive efficiency depends largely upon a rebuilt offensive line made up of former reserves and first-time starters. The offensive backfield, including fullback John Berner, and tight end Greg Schildemeyer give some support to McCallum and quarterback Bill Byrne.

"The combination of McCallum and Byrne certainly improves them," Crum said. "It means you can't focus on the run anymore. Last year we could focus on McCallum, but you can't do that. You have to respect Byrne."

The Midshipmen have hinted they will be throwing to McCallum a lot, partly to keep defenses from stacking against him and partly because he's a good receiver. Tranquill is coy on the subject: "If he's open, we'll throw to him."

Tranquill also tends to understate McCallum's performance in preseason, which was by all accounts cause for excitement. He has shown no ill effects from the broken ankle suffered in the second game of last season. "I didn't see anything to make me change my mind," Tranquill said.