True, it's only the fourth week of the season, probably a little too early to talk about "must" games. But players and coaches at the University of Maryland have talked for the last two years about their football program taking another step up; moving on from 8-3 records and consistently beating teams in the top 10.

The Terrapins can do a lot toward achieving that goal here Saturday afternoon when they meet the Michigan Wolverines before the usual gathering of 105,000 at 1 o'clock in Michigan Stadium (HTS cable, tape delayed at 11:30).

"Michigan is a team that's regarded consistently as a top 20 team," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said this week. "The more people we can beat in that category, the more people will regard us in a similar light, and that's what we want."

Some people already regard Maryland in that light, as shown by Michigan being favored by only a point, despite the home field advantage and Maryland's tendency to lose to traditional powers.

The game, Maryland's first regular-season contest with a Big Ten team since 1950, will match two of the best defenses in the nation and two very contrasting offenses. Each team has won its last two games convincingly.

The 12th-ranked Wolverines haven't allowed a touchdown in victories over two ranked opponents -- Notre Dame and South Carolina -- and are 2-0 for the first time since 1978. The 17th-ranked Terrapins (2-1) had little difficulty with West Virginia and Boston College.

In fact, Ross said, "There's a degree of confidence in our football team that we'll need going into this game."

Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler has said on several occasions during the week that Maryland is probably better than either of the Wolverines' first two opponents.

He seemed especially impressed by the Terrapins' running game, which has averaged more than 200 yards the first three weeks of the season.

"When you've been around as long as their offensive linemen, with that kind of ability and those backs, you're going to have a good running game," Schembechler said. "There's no question they'll run the football better than anybody we've played so far."

One would expect that sort of talk from the coaches. But both teams appear to be very good at this stage. Michigan, in fact, might be a bit underrated for a change.

The offense has a degree of balance, which is rare. Michigan's 507 yards of total offense in a 34-3 victory over South Carolina last week was the most for the Wolverines since 1983.

Jim Harbaugh, Michigan's 6-foot-3, 200-pound quarterback, is 5-1 as a starter, and was 3-1 last year before breaking his arm. He passes well and runs the option when asked.

Some skeptics have said Schembechler, a noted offensive conservative, is passing a little more because he doesn't have a power back to run between the tackles, and that is perhaps true.

But Michigan's rotation of four backs -- tailbacks Jamie Morris and Thomas Wilcher and fullbacks Bob Perryman and Gerald White -- gives the Wolverines multiple 100-yard rushing threats, especially considering they run behind an offensive line that crushed Notre Dame and South Carolina.

The Michigan backs average 287 yards per game rushing, for five yards per carry. And that will provide one of the game's key matchups, since the Terrapins' defense has been allowing only 69 rushing yards per game.

When the Wolverines do pass, Harbaugh often looks for 6-foot-8, 240-pound receiver Paul Jokisch, a former basketball player who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and could often find himself matched with Maryland's 5-9 cornerback, Keeta Covington.

"You'll see Keeta's head right around the guy's bellybutton," Ross said.

It's Maryland's gamebreakers that are concerning Schembechler. Traditionally, Michigan has had trouble against teams with wide-open offenses. See Rose Bowl results.

Michigan's wide cornerback Brad Cochran is supposed to be one of the better coverage men in the Big Ten. And he'll certainly get the chance to show it if Schembechler puts him one-on-one on Maryland's Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof.

One factor that would seem to work against Maryland is the sheer size of Michigan Stadium, the largest for college football in the nation.

General consensus is that Clemson's stadium is louder. But the Terrapins have never played before a crowd larger than 85,000.

Ross played that down by saying, "What's the difference, really, between 85,000 and 100,000."

J.D. Maarleveld, Maryland's right offensive tackle, was a freshman with Notre Dame when the Irish played at Michigan. "The thing that's awesome," he said, "is you just see people forever. It's not as loud as Clemson. The noise isn't that bad. But it can be intimidating. You really notice it in the pre-game and the day before when you just walk around and marvel at the size of the place."

Ross hopes his Terrapins get their marveling done before the opening kickoff. Maryland has already lost one game it needed to win (for image as much as anything): to Penn State.

The Terrapins were 7-1 two years ago, and lost at Auburn and Clemson. A loss at Penn State last year and in 1982 kept Maryland out of a New Year's Day Bowl.

Maryland, from most indications, is as talented as Michigan. And the Terrapins seem to be over early-season jitters. "This game puts us in the spotlight," Maarleveld said. "Michigan is always good. Always. If we can beat them, it will put us in the same category."