Even with 36 players who have four remaining years of eligibility, even with uncertainty at the quarterback position, many Maryland players are eyeing the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl that will crown this season's national champion.

Coach Ralph Friedgen, who asks his players to write down team goals each season, said many predicted playing for the national championship, which speaks to the enhanced expectations within the program.

If Maryland has any chance to secure a top-tier bowl game, it needs to avoid a poor start to the season, something that has plagued the Terps the past two years. They began 0-2 last season and 1-2 two years ago, starts that all but excluded them from Bowl Championship Series contention.

"I used to play Maryland the second ballgame every year," Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said. "That's the ideal time to play Maryland. They don't get cranked up until the third game. And he [Friedgen] wins his last [nine, in 2003]. Now this year . . . that [game] is going to be a problem."

Maryland does not play Florida State, which has dominated the conference the past decade, until Oct. 30. Instead, the Terps will begin the season against Northern Illinois, a Mid-American Conference team, and Temple, which won one game last year.

Winning both is imperative, though, because the schedule turns tougher beginning Oct. 23 at Clemson and, as defensive end Shawne Merriman said, the Terps "don't want to be backed into a corner."

A season-opening loss last year to Northern Illinois threatened to derail the Terps' season before the calendar turned to September. A thumping by Florida State worsened the outlook a week later. The offense had sputtered, and players perhaps had become too complacent.

"I think a lot of times we looked past teams when we shouldn't have," wide receiver Rich Parson said. "We're so excited about winning big games that we start forgetting about smaller teams that are actually pretty good, like Northern Illinois. We took them seriously, but we were so much game-planning for the next game [Florida State] instead of game-planning for Northern Illinois."

Friedgen now thinks he might have been too easy on his players in summer camp last year. This camp -- more running, more conditioning -- won't be easy, at least early on, as attested by the fatigued look sculpted tight end Vernon Davis wore Wednesday night trudging from the practice field.

Because many key players are inexperienced, Friedgen will stage one more scrimmage than he usually does and install less of the complicated offense for his quarterbacks.

"The thing that concerns me with the way they do the BCS right now is if you lose early you could be out of the thing, unless you win the league," Friedgen said last month. "In the last poll, I think we were better than some of the teams ranked ahead of us. But because we lost early, we were never able to gain that back. Now the polls count so much, I'm worried about that. It's almost a disadvantage to be ranked high early."

Players said the team has been pointing to the Northern Illinois game all offseason. The Huskies aren't expected to be as formidable as the team that finished 10-2 last season and also defeated Alabama and Iowa State.

And the season opener will be played at Byrd Stadium, where the Terps are 19-1 under Friedgen, instead of in Dekalb, Ill.

But players are aware of a potential ambush.

"If we start out early like we did my freshman year [7-0 in 2001]," Parson said, "we have a definite chance of going to the national championship game."