ANNAPOLIS, SEPT. 12 -- When George Welsh left the Naval Academy after the 1981 season, he claimed that because of their recruiting limitations, the Midshipmen could never be better than 8-3, a record he achieved twice in nine years.

Welsh wanted a situation where an unbeaten season and a national championship were strong possibilities, not impossible dreams. A lot of people wondered how he could hope to achieve such heights at Virginia, the perennial patsy of the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they are wondering no longer.

Welsh's Cavaliers went 10-3 last season and, after last week's breakthrough against Clemson, they are 2-0, ranked 11th in the nation and given a solid chance to finish the regular season unbeaten.

Saturday, Virginia will play host to Navy, which has experienced hard times since Welsh's change of allegiance and, under new Coach George Chaump, is trying to snap a string of seven losing seasons.

Asked to compare coaching at Virginia and Navy, Welsh today virtually repeated his words of nine years ago: "The only difference is we're able to recruit better athletes year after year than at Navy. The coaching is no different. I'm still coaching the same."

Actually, Welsh is not quite as conservative offensively as in his Navy days, and a major reason is the agile mind of his quarterbacks coach, Gary Tranquill. If that name sounds familiar, Tranquill succeeded Welsh at Navy and beat the Cavaliers three times in five meetings. Tranquill was dismissed by the academy after the 1986 season. Coincidentally, the teams have not met since.

"I have to give Gary Tranquill most of the credit for our offense," Welsh said. "I'd never used a one-back before, but that has helped us in a lot of games. Gary has the quarterbacks doing a lot of things, which is partly his influence and partly the fact that for the first time we have outstanding receivers. But I'd have to say Gary has been a big influence in opening up our offense."

Chaump has opened things up at Navy too, but he acknowledged today that he did not have the horses to match the Cavaliers.

"George hit it right on the head," Chaump said of the difference between the teams. "I've coached at every level from high school to pros except Division III, and you coach the same way. The common denominator is people.

"The emotional set is the same, even in pro football. It's not the paycheck that motivates them, no matter what you hear about the salaries; it's pride. But you do get a difference in the quality of athletes at every level. Here you have to work on the mental set rather than the physical, because you play against some people who are obviously bigger and stronger.

"A kid here is sharper in terms of the pride factor. You can motivate these kids. If we could only get the world's greatest athletes, you're going to have great football teams, like during the war. The key is to get the physical talent to go with the mental set."

From tackle to tackle, Virginia's offensive line ranges from 264 pounds (center Trevor Ryals) to 300 (left tackle Ray Roberts). On defense, Navy's tackles go 245 (Chris Alexander) and 262 (Chris Janke), with middle guard Andy Kirkland only 230.

"If there are teams in America much better than Virginia, they'd better go in the NFL," Chaump said. "They're talented, they're well-coached and they have a lot going for them. They have seven seniors starting on offense and their quarterback {Shawn Moore} is dangerous on every play. You have to defend both pass and run every time. You'd better tackle him whenever you get the chance."

Navy has five seniors starting offensively, but they have had to learn an entirely new system and made a number of mistakes in an opening 28-17 victory over Richmond. Chaump won't concede defeat by Virginia, but he is not hiding the size of the task from his players either.

"We're preparing to win. We're not throwing in the towel," Chaump said. "It will take a superhuman effort by every player on that football team and we'll need the breaks too -- dropped balls, penalties against them, whatever.

"I'd like to think we can pass on anybody, but their four secondary people have 112 starts, and that's a lot of experience. They're fast, they're quick, they're good. I'm not too confident we're as prepared as we could be for Virginia, but we have to play that game, anyway. The U.S. Naval Academy does rise to occasions. I'm sure we'll do our best."

Navy Notes: Chaump considered the behavior of the Virginia students after the Clemson victory "asinine." When it was suggested he might face the same situation if Navy should beat Notre Dame (the Irish have won 26 in a row), Chaump laughed and said, "If that happens, I'll be up on the crossbar myself -- and I'll pay for new goalposts." . . . It cost Virginia $8,000 for a new set of goalposts. . . . About 2,000 tickets remain for Saturday's game at Scott Stadium. . . .

Chaump is hopeful offensive guard Michael Davis, at 289 pounds Navy's biggest player, will be able to play Saturday, after suffering a broken foot a month ago. "Michael Davis on one leg is better than most of our guys on two," Chaump said. "I'm not being derogatory to our other guys, but Michael is a dandy football player. Unfortunately, Virginia seems to have five like him." . . . Welsh fears a letdown after the Clemson victory, but Chaump said: "Their goal is to be an undefeated national champion. They beat Clemson and they're only No. 11. They want to be No. 1, so they're not going to take the week off."