If brashness were enough to get them back to college football's national championship game, the Miami Hurricanes could have finalized their arrangements for the Sugar Bowl more than six weeks ago.

"Look at our schedule," junior tailback James Jackson said during the Big East Conference's media day July 29. "I don't think we should lose any game on our schedule this year. If we lose a game it'll be because we got a big head. With the caliber of team we have, that's the only way we'd lose a game.

"I see Miami as the team to beat not only in the Big East but in the whole NCAA, to be honest with you. . . . Those who have us ranked [lower than No. 1], I think they'll look like the fools."

So far, no one voting in either of the major college football polls has ranked Miami No. 1, but that could change after its game Saturday against No. 3 Penn State at the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes have opened with victories over then-No. 9 Ohio State and Florida A&M, moved to No. 8 in the media rankings and look like legitimate challengers to the Nittany Lions (3-0).

"We know how important this game is to our team, to determining where we stand," said Miami Coach Butch Davis, whose team was off last weekend. "Right now, Penn State is where we'd like to be."

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kenny Kelly, in his first season as a starter, agreed with the first part of his coach's statement, but didn't show the Nittany Lions quite the same deference.

"I think after this game we will definitely know where we're at," Kelly said during a teleconference this week. "I think we played really well against FAMU and Ohio State, and I think if we play as well as we did in those two games, then we'll be fine this Saturday."

From 1986 to 1992, the Hurricanes had a 78-6 record, including the 1987, '89 and '91 national championships, a 31-game regular season winning streak and the balance of an NCAA-record 58-game home winning streak. They spent the 1995, '96 and '97 seasons rebuilding from NCAA sanctions handed down in 1995 that limited scholarships and postseason opportunities and severely diminished the swagger that had become their trademark.

Crowds at the Orange Bowl diminished, and so did the vaunted home-field advantage. Miami lost three consecutive home games in 1996 and five out of six during a stretch that carried over into 1997, which turned out to be the low-ebb season. The Hurricanes went 5-6 that season, and during one home game, a plane flew over the stadium trailing a banner that read: "From National Champs to National Chumps. Thanks, Butch."

Things began to turn last season, which is best remembered for Miami's 9-3 final record and a 49-45 victory over then-No. 3 UCLA in the regular season finale that ended the Bruins' 20-game winning streak and eliminated them for national championship contention. But there still were forgettable moments, like a 27-20 overtime loss at home to Virginia Tech and a 66-13 wipeout at Syracuse in the game that decided the Big East Conference title.

"I'm always looking at the big picture," said Davis, now in his fifth season at Miami. "At the end of the season, after we've played 12 or 13 games, then we'll sit and look back at how we did, how we fared against the top teams in the country. But we can't do that after two games. One of the reasons we were excited about the chance to play Ohio State was because I believe if you schedule properly then people around the country really get a chance to look at you. It gives you the opportunity to earn respect.

"All everyone wants to know is if `Miami is back.' The truth is we're probably still one year, at least, away from filling some of the void in recruiting that came about because of the sanctions and probation."

Miami does have eight seniors in its starting lineup, and its two-deep teems with non-seniors -- many of whom seem not to feel there is a talent void of any kind.

Kelly, on standout junior wide receivers Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne: "The one thing I like about our receivers is that I can go to any one of them at any time. It's not like I have to count on Santana for this situation or on Reggie for this situation. I can count on all of them in any situation. That's a quarterback's dream -- to have three or four receivers that you can just put the ball up, and they'll go and get it. I feel like Randall Cunningham sometimes with Cris Carter and Randy Moss."

Junior linebacker Dan Morgan, on the defense's attitude: "We have that confidence now where we come out on the field and really feel in control."

These proclamations of greatness remain a bit suspect, at least for now. Sophomore tailback Najeh Davenport, who was slated to share the position with Jackson -- much the same way Jackson shared with Edgerrin James last season -- suffered a season-ending knee injury against Ohio State.

And even after Saturday, there are some very tough games ahead. Oct. 9, the Hurricanes play No. 1-ranked Florida State in Tallahassee, and Nov. 13, they play at No. 10 Virginia Tech, which has beaten them four consecutive times.

Even the Hokies acknowledge that things have turned in Miami.

"They are the most talented team in the Big East year-in and year-out," said Virginia Tech all-American defensive end Corey Moore. "Let's just be honest, who's going to outrecruit Miami in the Big East? You think Blacksburg is a bigger draw? No. Miami is on the way back to being a top 10 team every year, and Coach Davis is a big part of the reason."

So is Kelly, the latest in a long line of Miami quarterbacks that includes Gino Torretta, Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar and Jim Kelly. Kelly (26 of 40 passing for 364 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions) is described by his teammates as a quick-footed and strong-armed leader who can be the next to take the Hurricanes to a title. The question is how quickly Kelly can gain the experience he needs to get them there. Among those being counted on to ease his load in the meantime are Jackson and Moss, who is averaging a league-high 26.9 yards per catch and 94 yards per game this season.

Miami also fields a defense that is particularly tough against the run. Morgan (6-3, 225) and Nate Webster (6-0, 225) are among the nation's best linebackers and finished 1-2 in the Big East last season with 150 and 134 tackles, respectively. The team's secondary, which was burned for many big plays last season, has matured, but will continue to be tested -- particularly by Penn State.

"This year we've been fortunate not to give up any big plays, and the players deserve the credit for putting us in that situation," Davis said. "It's been a matter of maturation leading to stability. Now we're about to see if the consistency is something we can maintain. That's what championship teams do. And for us, it has to start this week."

A Top 10 Saturday

No. 3 Penn State (3-0) at No. 8 Miami (2-0), 3:30 p.m., WUSA-9, WJZ-13

No. 2 Tennessee (1-0) at No. 4 Florida (2-0), 8 p.m., WUSA-9, WJZ-13