An 8-3 record isn't what you would have expected from a team that seemed to be in the high cotton before the season started. But the University of Maryland finds itself in the rare, bittersweet position of having lost to the teams that might well end up ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the final poll. Penn State, now No. 1, beat Maryland, 20-18, in the first game for both schools. Three weeks later, Michigan, now No. 5, shut out Maryland, 20-0. And three weeks ago, Miami (Fla.), now No. 4, charged hard to defeat Maryland, 29-22.

With that kind of experience to draw on, it seemed reasonable to poll the Maryland players and see how they rank the three teams. Opinions were solicited from 11 starters. Awarding two points for first, one for second, and zero for third -- with the number of first-place votes in parentheses -- here are the total points:

Miami (7) . . . 18

Michigan (4) . . . 14

Penn State . . . 1

Among those speaking for Miami were defensive back Donald Brown, defensive tackle Scott Tye and offensive tackle Tony Edwards. Brown, a senior who played at Oklahoma as a freshman, called Miami "the best team I ever played against." Tye said the Hurricanes have "the best pair of running backs in the country" in Melvin Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith, and "the best quarterback, too," Vinny Testaverde. Edwards looked back on five years in the Maryland program and said, "No team ever manhandled us like Miami did in the fourth quarter."

Those speaking for Michigan included fullback Rick Badanjek and linebacker Chuck Faucette. Badanjek remained astonished at Michigan's defense. "They shut us down," he said, as if he'd thought that impossible. Faucette, a tough guy himself, said of Michigan, "They were the toughest. That was the only team to physically beat us, and, man, they beat us."

Nobody spoke confidently for Penn State.

Nobody was convinced.

"It's hard to believe they're 11-0," said Badanjek.

"I don't think they're the best team in the country," said linebacker Scott Schankweiler. "Until recently, they'd been squeaking by everybody."

Penn State has won seven games by a total of 28 points. In contrast, Miami has won nine by 12 points or more, and Michigan has won seven by 20 points or more. Penn State played only four teams that now show winning records, none of which is ranked in the top 20. The Nittany Lions didn't seem genuine until recent victories over Notre Dame (36-6) and Pittsburgh (31-0). "I think Miami and Michigan would beat Penn State," said quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, adding with a smile, "Of course I thought we'd beat them, too."

It's no surprise that Penn State's ranking would receive this underwhelming support from the Terrapins. Not only does everyone associated with the Maryland football program resent the perpetual dominance by Penn State, but it's hard to look at a skinny win in the first game of a season as a brick that the national championship is built on, especially when you don't concede the winning team to be the better one. "We were as good as they were," defensive guard Bruce Mesner said calmly. By the same token, as offensive tackle J.D. Maarleveld reminds us, "People could be impressed that Penn State beat us, because back then everybody thought we were one of the best teams in the country."

Still, had you walked into the Maryland locker room after that loss to Penn State suggesting that 12 weeks hence, Penn State would be undefeated and ranked No. 1, this is what you'd have heard in response:

From Faucette: "You're crazy."

From Schankweiler: "No way."

From Edwards: "There's a shot, but only because of their schedule. After us and Alabama, it's all downhill."

But now, through the turns of the full season, Penn State enjoys Maryland's admiration and has earned its grudging respect. "They were the most fundamental of all the teams we played. They made the least mistakes. You have to beat Penn State; Penn State doesn't beat itself," said defensive back Keeta Covington. The Maryland players certainly don't hold Penn State in awe, but they willingly allow that the Nittany Lions have gotten better since that first week, and they acknowledge Joe Paterno's guiding light. Brown spoke reverentially of Paterno's habitual success: "Coach Paterno, he finds a way to win. He'll take a win by a half-point."

Regardless of the Maryland poll, Penn State has the mythical national title on its racket; it needs only to hold serve against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Faucette, still reluctant to sing for Penn State, knows this is a team that had played wisely if not too well: "If they win the Orange Bowl, what can I say? As much as I hate to say it, they'll deserve it." In some ways it has evolved into practical politics for Maryland. "I think they'll do it -- become national champs. That'll make us look good," said Edwards, seeking a dollop of solace.

You'll be able to see all three of Maryland's conquerors play on New Year's Day. Had the Terrapins beaten any one of them, you'd probably be able to see them, too.