When they haven't been the object of pity, the Maryland Terrapins have been summarily dismissed with a weary shrug of the shoulder, a perhaps understandable reaction given the team's sleepy 3-7-1 record a year ago and a four-year drought since its last winning season.

This year, however, both Coach Joe Krivak and his players insist they will be able to make the public snap to attention, beginning with today's Byrd Stadium contest against Virginia Tech.

"I'm sure those on the outside think so, but we're not a bunch of guys feeling sorry for ourselves or thinking that we're losers," said wide receiver Barry Johnson. "We've taken a few licks the last few years but now we want to start giving some out."

Of course, virtually every college team expresses optimism on the eve of the season opener. In Maryland's case, is there just cause? Preseason practices have been crisp and there has been no flagging of emotion, each workout ending with a series of war whoops and rallying cries.

"That's been different since I've been here," said defensive tackle Larry Webster. "Before, the guys were too down to yell too much."

The question is whether the Terrapins can sustain their enthusiasm into October and November, through a killer schedule that not only includes a pair of top 15 teams in Atlantic Coast Conference foes Clemson and Virginia, but a nonconference slate that includes Michigan, Penn State and West Virginia, all nationally ranked.

One of Maryland's wins last season was a 23-0 shutout of Western Michigan, which has been replaced on the schedule by Virginia Tech. The Hokies finished 6-4-1 a year ago, with wins over West Virginia and North Carolina State, both of which defeated Maryland.

"They probably think we're going to be pushovers," said Webster. "They're probably coming to the University of Maryland thinking it's going to be a cakewalk, but it won't be like that."

As is the case in any early-season game, Krivak said the winner will be determined by which team controls the ball best while making the fewest mistakes. In that sense, Virginia Tech seems to have the edge, featuring a pair of running backs, Vaughn Hebron and Tony Kennedy, who rushed for 584 and 534 yards, respectively, last season. Maryland's leading returning rusher, Troy Jackson, totaled just 110 yards on a meager 22 carries.

The rest of the Terrapins' offense is almost as inexperienced. Johnson caught 43 passes last season and tackle Clarence Jones and centers Mitch Suplee and Frank Namath have started contests during their career, but that is a large segment of the game experience.

Quarterback Scott Zolak has shown he has the skills to be as good as any of his predecessors, but he still hasn't started a game and his talents won't mean much if he is swamped every time he attempts to pass.

"I'm not worried about the offensive line's inexperience," Zolak said with a smile. "They could be saying the same things about me. Hopefully, they'll be making all the right calls and I'll be making all the right calls and it'll all come together."

Not to knock the offense, but as with most good teams, any hopes Maryland has of surviving its intimidating slate lie with the defense, which appears to be a formidable unit.

Not only are nine starters returning, there is an almost equal number of reserves with substantial experience. In the opener at least, that depth may help the Terrapins through what is expected to be a hot, strength-sapping afternoon.

Earlier this week, Krivak said he likes the matchups of his defense against Virginia Tech's offense and vice versa. The coach added that even if he didn't, he had little choice in the matter.

"We'll have to play people and they'll have to be ready -- that's why we've been practicing," Krivak said.