MIAMI, OCT. 9 -- In August, Maryland's football team thought it might be coming here with a 4-0 record, 3-1 at worst, and maybe even a national ranking. They would be riding a wave into the Orange Bowl for tonight's 7:30 game against a fine Miami Hurricanes team. With their miraculous comeback of 1984 as a historical note, this game would be something special.

However, two aspects of that scenario didn't pan out. Maryland, so far, is mediocre. And Miami isn't just good, it's contending again for a national championship.

While Maryland is 2-2 and struggling after a 42-14 loss to North Carolina State two weeks ago, the third-ranked Hurricanes are 3-0 and their pictures are spread all over the nation on magazine covers.

"No one thinks we can beat them except us," said Terrapins wide receiver Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof.

In other games Saturday involving area teams, Navy goes for its first victory of the season against the Air Force Academy at Annapolis, Howard hopes to stay unbeaten against Towson State and Virginia will try for its first victory after 26 straight losses to host Clemson.

Miami has won 24 straight regular season games, and this season has outscored its opponents by an average of 36-12. After beating Florida here, the Hurricanes crushed then-10th-ranked Arkansas, 51-7, in Little Rock. Last week, though they were outgained and trailed by 19-3, they came back to beat fourth-ranked Florida State, 26-25, in Tallahassee.

Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson was trying hard this week to act concerned about this game. "We're not playing very well right now," he said.

Unlike Maryland, the Hurricanes are finished with the toughest part of their schedule. After Maryland, Miami plays at Cincinnati and at East Carolina before finishing at home against Miami of Ohio, Virginia Tech, Toledo, Notre Dame and South Carolina. Though bowl bids officially go out following games on Nov. 21, the Notre Dame-Miami game could decide who plays in the Orange Bowl.

"I'd like to have Coach Johnson's problems," Maryland Coach Joe Krivak said ruefully. To get to Miami's level, Krivak said Maryland needs "an awful lot of real good football players. We're a far, far cry from that right now."

Krivak has several problems. His linebacking corps is battered. Richie Petitbon is definitely out, and might miss a couple more weeks with a sprained ankle. Kevin Walker (strained Achilles' tendon) and O'Brien Alston (ankle) practiced this week. Both will play, but how effective they will be is another question.

"Miami will test us to see if the middle is still vulnerable," said Scott Saylor, who played most of the North Carolina State game after Walker and Petitbon were hurt. The return of nose guard Bob Arnold should help the Terrapins stop the Miami running offense, led by Melvin Bratton and Warren Williams. If Maryland can't stop the run, Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, who has replaced Heisman Trophy-winner Vinny Testaverde, will have an easy time throwing.

"If you can get Walsh to move off his spot, his arm isn't nearly as strong," said Maryland defensive coordinator Greg Williams, who attended the Miami-Florida State game. "If you can get him to move up in the pocket or move right or left, it cuts down on his strength and accuracy."

The Hurricanes do have talent and speed on the flanks. Michael Irvin, who caught two touchdown passes against Florida State, averages 25.8 yards per catch. Brian Blades -- brother of safety Bennie Blades -- has 10 receptions, as does tight end Charles Henry.

Maryland also has a talented receiving corps, but the Terrapins will win or lose with their offensive line. There has to be at least a semblance of a running offense and they must find a way to give quarterback Dan Henning time to throw.

Navy might not be able to salvage its season with just one or two victories, but if those wins were to come against Air Force and/or Army, it would certainly give the Midshipmen something to build on -- the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, given each season to the winner of the annual football competition between the service academies.

"One or two wins a season isn't what we want," Navy Coach Elliot Uzelac said, "but I'll tell you this, if we beat Air Force, nobody's going to remember those first four games."

If Virginia beats No. 8 Clemson, people might not forget the first 26 games in their series, but they'll always remember the 27th. The Tigers are allowing opponents an average of 160 yards total offense per game, just 58 yards and, as always, 80,000 fans will be watching in Death Valley. The Cavaliers are on a three-game winning streak, and they missed a two-point conversion that would have beaten Maryland and played well in a season-opening loss to Georgia.

Howard will not face many teams with strong-armed quarterbacks, but one of the few is Towson State, which hosts the undefeated Bison tonight at 7 in a nonleague game. The Tigers come off a 17-14 upset of then No. 3-ranked Maine. Freshman quarterback Chris Goetz earned ECAC rookie-of-the-week honors by throwing for 260 yards. Wide receiver Dale Chipps, a senior from Gwynn Park High School, has caught a team-leading 18 passes.

The Bison, 3-0 and on a 10-game winning streak, enter the game as the nation's top Division I-AA team in total offense (575 yards per game) and rushing (387 per game). Tailback Harvey Reed is the individual leader in rushing (185 yards per game) and scoring (14.7 points per game).

Howard's defense, however, is allowing 434 total yards per game, including 246 passing. A weak pass rush was further hurt this week when nose guard Billy Dores suffered a sprained ankle in practice. He is doubtful for tonight's game.

Towson State is in its first year as a Division I-AA school after making the Division II playoffs three of the past four years. The Tigers, however, have an impressive 17-13-1 record against I-AA opponents and are 38-10-2 at Minnegan Stadium.

Nationally, drunkards will be drunk, brawlers will be jailed and the state fair will swirl around the Texas-Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl (2:30 p.m., CBS) in Dallas. This season's version of the 87-year-old college football classic appears more comical than dramatic, but it remains a spectacle, especially on a slow weekend that offers only Louisiana State at Georgia in games of national interest.

Usually when Oklahoma and Texas meet, the game bears some national significance. However, the most significant thing about this year's game is the point spread: the top-ranked Sooners (4-0) are favored by 30 points over the unranked, depressed Longhorns (2-2).

"I think we've got a better chance than that," first-year Texas coach David McWilliams said. "We can't stand around and be scared."

Still, Texas must stop an Oklahoma team that leads the country in both total offense and total defense. Quarterback Jamelle Holieway orchestrates an offense averaging 544 yards a game, while the Sooners' defense holds opponents to a humbling 150 yards.