The first game of the season is always a little special.

"In the opening game," said Joe Krivak, "it could be indoors, outdoors, it could be in the parking lot for all it matters. You've got to have it flowing."

Krivak's first game as Maryland head coach will take place in the climate-controlled Carrier Dome on the campus where he earned his degree. The former Syracuse Orangeman will return to coach the Terrapins at 7:30 tonight.

"I'd be dead if it didn't stir any emotion," Krivak said recently. "And I'd be lying to you if I said it's just another game. Sure, there's a little more significance to that. I just don't want to overplay that in my own mind, and I don't want to get caught up in a hullabaloo where it will affect what we've got to do as a football team.

"Yeah, there will be a few extra butterflies for me and a little rush of nostalgia when I walk into the dome . . . But I'm there now as the head football coach of the University of Maryland. I've been here for many years and this is home to me."

Maryland probably has a better chance of starting the season with a victory than does Virginia. The Cavaliers, coming off a 3-8 season, open at Georgia at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Bulldogs, 8-4 last year, are tied for 20th in the Associated Press preseason poll.

"This is the toughest opener we've had since I've been here," said Virginia Coach George Welsh, who is starting his sixth season in Charlottesville.

"I feel pretty good about our squad in the long haul," he said this week, "but I'm not as sure about the opener. We're playing with a lot of young people, people in different positions and not a lot of depth.

"The squad might be a little nervous. A lot of people haven't been in games, especially with big crowds and against an SEC {Southeastern Conference} school."

The Virginia-Georgia series stands at 6-6-3. The Cavaliers won the last game, 31-0, in 1979, the year before the Bulldogs won the national championship. Though the game isn't likely to have much sentimental value for Welsh, it will for one of his players. Sophomore wide receiver Derek Dooley is the son of Georgia Coach Vince Dooley and grew up in Athens, Ga., where the game will be played.

The Bulldogs were sixth, fifth and seventh in the SEC in defense the last three years, and Vince Dooley has complained that this year's bunch of Junkyard Dogs won't have any more bite than the previous three. Welsh doesn't buy that.

""Maybe it's not up to their standards," he said, "but it's pretty good. We should have a defense like that one of these years."

Syracuse finished 5-6 last year. Overall, that was a disappointment, but consider that the Orangemen lost their first four games.

"This should be one of the finest teams that Coach {Dick} MacPherson has been able to put on the field," Krivak said.

The defense -- which Krivak described as "very, very sound" -- will have to keep Syracuse in games until its offense develops.

Maryland figures to throw the ball a fair amount, although the Terrapins have insisted they plan to run as much as pass. The receiving corps is solid but will be without its leader from last year -- senior James Milling (team-high 33 receptions, 19.7-yard average) broke a finger a week ago and will miss today's game and possibly next week's against Virginia.

The Syracuse defense will have to control Maryland because Syracuse's offense may be a couple games from jelling.

The offensive line is young -- two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore -- which could make life difficult for senior Don McPherson, Syracuse's excellent quarterback.

"They're good enough to be out there," Maryland nose guard Bob Arnold said. "And for some it's the first game starting, so they'll be even more fired up. Plus, with young guys, you don't have that much film on them, so you don't know their pluses and minuses as you would with an older guy."

McPherson -- who didn't go to Penn State in good part because Joe Paterno couldn't promise he wouldn't move McPherson to another position -- is as dangerous a runner as he is a passer, having led Syracuse in rushing and passing the past two seasons. Last year, he completed 142 of 269 passes for 1,827 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also ran for 523 yards and six touchdowns.

"The key is whether we can contain him," Krivak said. "He's a pretty good drop-back passer, but he's especially dangerous on the option and option pass. He has a knack for finding people downfield."

Maryland has a new defense and a mostly new secondary. The only starter back is strong safety J.B. Brown. Free safety Chad Sydnor and cornerback Irvin Smith played last year. The other cornerback, redshirt freshman Mike Hollis, hasn't played a down. All seem to have enough speed, but against a scrambling quarterback such as McPherson, they'll need to stay with their man through the entire play.

"He can run all over the place and throw off the run," Arnold said of McPherson. "If he's scrambling and defensive backs come up, he can just throw over them."

But Maryland coaches have confidence in the defensive backs. "They will get better every game we play," said defensive coordinator/secondary coach Greg Williams. "I'll be disappointed if we're not respectable, and then sort of improve from there."