While there will be plenty of time to argue whether the outcome of Saturday's game between Maryland and North Carolina will save a coach's job or influence bowl invitations, there is no question about one thing -- with a victory the Terrapins can have their first winning football season in five years. If nothing else, that is the goal of a group of 19 seniors.

"All the other classes {in recent seasons} before this one had at least one," said linebacker Glenn Page. "We haven't. We don't know that kind of excitement. That motivates us; it drives us."

Linebacker Scott Whittier, in the program for six seasons after being granted a medical redshirt a year ago, is one of the last links to what was at one time commonplace. He was a redshirt on the 1985 team that went 9-3 and finished the season ranked 18th nationally.

"We understand what's at stake this weekend," he said yesterday. "And it's not going to be a matter of who wants the game most -- North Carolina's been through some tough times and they want a taste of winning too -- it's going to be a matter of who's the better team.

"There are no excuses, no talking about being flat or nobody watching in the stands; this is going to be like one of the old Maryland-North Carolina games."

The football class of 1990 thought those games, featuring talents such as Randy White and Boomer Esiason, "Famous" Amos Lawrence and Lawrence Taylor, were what they would be playing on a weekly basis when they arrived at Maryland. But it wasn't to be.

There were glimmers of hope. The 1986 team began the season 3-0 before sliding to 5-5-1. Two years later the Terps, like this season's team, were 5-3 before losing to Penn State, Clemson and Virginia.

"We went to Penn State and lost {17-10} in a rainstorm in the last two minutes," Whittier recalled. "We played Clemson {49-25} tough but they had too much for us and Virginia {24-23} was a controversial loss on the last play.

"This year's team and that '88 team are a lot alike, but this year we don't want to be content with being competitive; we want to climb over the hump and be winners."

Tackle Clarence Jones said Maryland's problem recently hasn't been a lack of desire or character. "We bounced back last year too. We just didn't win." But while close losses -- 10 by seven points or fewer -- have littered the landscape in 1986-89, this year's team has shown the ability to win tight games.

In 1989, Maryland lost to North Carolina State, 10-6, and to West Virginia, 14-10, in its opening two games, perhaps setting the tone for its eventual 3-7-1 record. This year the Terrapins beat West Virginia, 14-10, then came back to top the Wolfpack, 13-12. They rallied in the fourth quarter in both games.

"It's a funny thing, but you can get used to that; going into the huddle and looking in the quarterback's eye and knowing that he'll make the play," said Blaine Rose, who played guard for Maryland last season and was one of the last cuts of the New England Patriots this fall. "That's something that has to be acquired, the ability to know that if you stick with it you'll pull out the close game -- that's what they've got."

"When a team isn't winning you can't lay it off on just one thing," said former center Mark Agent. "It could have been a lack of preparation, it could've been a lack of intensity. It could have been injuries or it could have even been poor coaching.

"Not being on the team this year, you don't know what's changed . . . but for whatever reason they're the ones getting the job done."

Coach Joe Krivak can get misty-eyed talking about the senior leadership on this year's team, saying he wants a winning season not so much for his job status as for the players.

Another former player, who didn't want to be identified, argued that because of the well-documented troubles that Maryland has labored under during the last few years, the school couldn't draw talented enough players to win. "You could talk about tradition and pride but that can only carry you so far and at some point there would be a breakdown," he said. "These guys are far more consistent than we were."

The difference, said Whittier, is that this year's team has released the past.

"The other classes felt slighted about what was promised to them and what was here, in terms of things like facilities," he said. "We've tried to put all that behind us; instead of dwelling on that stuff we just looked at what was here and decided that we could win with it."