It's time for big Howard to prove it's really big time in little Division I-AA. When you win games by scores like 62-0, 56-14, 54-7, 45-0 and 43-3; when a dozen linemen average 300 pounds a man; when your tailback has 46 career touchdowns and leads the nation in rushing, you'd expect some respect.

Howard University hasn't gotten much. In the world of college football, the Bison are still nobodies. That could start to change on Saturday in Dover against Delaware State. Okay, you Bison, it's now or never for '87. Put down those pizzas, stomp the stuffing out of State and demand your rightful place in the 16-team I-AA playoffs.

Or else spend the winter listening to folks wonder if you're chubby frauds who ran up stats against Division II (and even NAIA) weaklings, but folded up whenever your foe was unintimidated.

Come Saturday night, Howard's either going to be a football program on the move with 15 wins in its last 16 games and a chance to make big noise in the national playoffs -- or it's going to hear jokes about how a team bigger than the Redskins managed to lose to Towson State and Delaware State.

To say that Nov. 21 is a red-letter day for Willie Jeffries' program may be the understatement of the season. "The public is right to feel in-between about us. Since I've been here, we've gone from two wins to four to eight -- an arithmetic progression. Now, we can make more believers," says Jeffries.

"This game has a lot riding on it. That's just the way it is. When I came here, I thought Howard had a chance, because of its location and academic reputation and resources, to be {in football} like Georgetown University is in basketball -- just bursting at the seams. We're at a point where we can take a big step in that direction."

The Bison have every conceivable motivation. Despite their 8-1 record and amazing numbers, they are only ranked No. 20 in the I-AA polls. Since just 16 teams make the postseason party, that ranking is tantamount to saying Howard hasn't beaten anybody and that, until the Bison do, they will continue to be ignored. Beating Newberry and Morehouse colleges by 99-7 counts about as much in pigskin circles as trouncing Radcliffe and Smith. It's almost a badge of dishonor. Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?

In Delaware State, Howard faces a perfect foe -- a team ranked No. 14 and tough enough (especially playing at home) that a Howard win would be hard to ignore.

For decades, Bison teams ranged from decent to dismal; never have they won the MEAC title. A weak schedule was part of survival. Morgan State, whom Howard just beat, 62-0, was a natural sort of archrival. Two strong academic schools whose alumni almost regarded a too-good football team with skepticism.

Then Jeffries arrived. At his alma mater, South Carolina State, Jeffries' teams were 50-13-4 and he was a folk hero -- Willie J. Next, Jeffries left for Wichita State to become the first black head football coach at a predominantly white I-A university.

Howard's fans and players know what they have in Jeffries. That's why Jeffries Appreciation Day drew 23,589 to Greene Stadium this month and that's why a record crowd of 29,595, including Bill Cosby, showed up the next week.

But all programs reach turning points. Jeffries has proven he can build a recruiting base in a football-rich state -- he has 27 players from Florida, including Harvey (Silk) Reed and his 3,995 career rushing yards. He's proven he can beat the powerhouse program he built at South Carolina State. And, at last, Jeffries has shown that Howard can, no matter how grudging the voters, crack the I-AA top 20. Dan Rather has even done a national evening news spot on Howard's extra-large line.

In Reed and "The Fat Boys," Howard has the stuff of small college mystique. Still, Jeffries has a vulnerable, one-dimensional team. You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd, but, as Towson State proved in its 30-14 win, you can sometimes skate around a Bison herd. As long as you run the football at Howard, or let them run it at you, you'll end up as well chewed as a box of Popeye's wings.

However, if you can throw over Howard's immobile defensive line, which rarely mounts much pass rush, you might score all night. History will not soon forget the Bethune-Cookman game of Sept. 19 -- your basic 58-51 game with 1,418 yards total offense. When Howard gets behind, the Bison blockers sometimes aren't agile enough to pick up blitzers. It's sack time. Passing game? What passing game?

Howard has talked bravely for weeks. Athletic Director Bill Moultrie vows a tougher schedule will be in place by Christmas, perhaps including a game with Akron, coached by Gerry Faust. "We would like to play any of those five {Southern Region} teams ranked ahead of us," says Jeffries. "I don't think we would have a problem with any of them."

Well, Delaware State's one of 'em.

If Howard wins, then many will notice a team with a 9-1 record and a point differential of 397-149 and counting. If the I-AA playoffs have no place for such a team, then something may be rotten in the state of small college polling. But if Howard loses, many will notice that in its four closest games this year, Howard has only outscored its modest foes by 137-125.

The Bison look awesome in uniform. Now it's time to look equally good on the scoreboard. All programs face watersheds. It's time for Howard to prove it's a big team worthy of a little national notice.