Maryland defensive coordinator Wally Ake asks his unit the question also uppermost among the rest of the Terrapins before tonight's game against No. 9 Georgia Tech in Atlanta: "Are we for real or what?"

They are unbeaten in three games, with each offering a chance to build toward the challenge of opening the Atlantic Coast Conference season against the high-scoring Yellow Jackets. Redshirt quarterback Calvin McCall made a successful debut against woeful Temple, and the entire team's confidence soared the following week with a rout of Division I-AA Western Carolina. That helped produce a 33-0 victory over West Virginia and elevate Maryland among the top 30 teams in the country.

By allowing just 10 points, the Terrapins have become the nation's best in scoring defense. But the Yellow Jackets (2-1, 0-1) scored 49 and 41 points in victories over Navy and Central Florida this season, and have scored fewer than three touchdowns just once in their past 32 games. But the team's 35 points and quarterback Joe Hamilton's 405 yards in total offense in a six-point loss to top-ranked Florida State on the road nearly three weeks ago were more impressive.

"I hope we have the confidence we can go and play them on even terms," Coach Ron Vanderlinden said. "I think we do.

"I feel good about this football team in all areas."

The last time Maryland felt this good about itself -- 1995, when it opened 4-0 and moved to No. 17 in the national rankings -- it went to Georgia Tech for a Thursday night game and got hammered, 31-3.

However, the circumstances then were much different. Maryland had played the previous Saturday (it was idle last Saturday) and Coach Mark Duffner chose to start senior Scott Milanovich at quarterback even though sophomore Brian Cummings had led the first four victories while Milanovich served a four-game NCAA suspension for gambling on college sports.

This time, both teams offer variety on offense. McCall has been effective in running the option and tailback LaMont Jordan has improved in his last two games. Jordan has been bothered by what he calls "a tweak" in his hamstring but said he expects to start. Eleven receivers have caught passes for Maryland, but only Jordan and wide receiver Jermaine Arrington have caught as many as six.

"What makes McCall so dangerous," Georgia Tech Coach George O'Leary said, "is his ability to take a play and make something when nothing seems there."

Georgia Tech's offense is where Maryland dreams of being in three years, or when either McCall or freshman Latrez Harrison is as experienced as Hamilton, a senior.

Name a formation, from four wide receivers and no running backs to three running backs and no wide receivers, and the Yellow Jackets probably will show it tonight.

"They do a great job of shifting people," Ake said, "so a lot of what's important for us is recognition. While they're [changing formations before the snap], we've got to get lined up and get our feet set, so we can be aggressive.

"As long as we can do that, I think we'll be able to play with them. I really do."

The Yellow Jackets have three unusually gifted players on offense. Hamilton, who leads the nation in passing efficiency and threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns against Florida State, is among the leaders for the Heisman Trophy. Wide receiver Dez White (23.4-yard average on nine catches) is regarded as a high first-round draft choice by NFL scouts and 6-foot-8, 335-pound tackle Jon Carman has won ACC offensive lineman of the week honors after each Georgia Tech game.

Maryland will try to counter Carman and the other large Yellow Jackets offensive linemen with quickness. At times, 250-pound Peter Timmins will go against Carman. A similar quickness-vs.-power matchup, between Timmins and Carman and the respective offensive and defensive lines, took place last year -- and the Terrapins gained a tie at halftime before Georgia Tech scored 17 straight points in the third quarter.

"Bigger doesn't always mean better," Timmins said.

Hamilton was bothered by a hip pointer in last year's game against Maryland and completed just 11 of 26 passes for 118 yards. But White returned a kickoff 100 yards and Georgia Tech averaged nearly five yards on 39 rushes.

The Terrapins still are relatively young -- and Vanderlinden tried to get them accustomed to the atmosphere of Bobby Dodd Stadium by having crowd noise blaring through a sound system at practice Tuesday.

Defensive back Renard Cox said the team is "getting a little love" from students and fans after its surprisingly good start.

Jordan knows what it will take against the Yellow Jackets to cause an emotional explosion on campus.

"We're levelheaded," said Jordan. "We're wearing smiles, because we've earned that right.

"But we've got to stay levelheaded and keep getting after 'em."