Keri Russell is about to go major.

As in major television star.As in all the major trappings that go with being major: major magazine cover girl, major darling of the press, major gossip topic, major movie presence.

Don't be alarmed if you've never heard of her. Her previous shows had little buzz.

Don't think you're behind if you haven't seen her show. "Felicity" doesn't debut until next month on the WB.

Just be prepared to see and hear a lot about the pair of them during the next weeks, months, year. Fashion mags, entertainment rags and whispering wags all have their designs on her and her show.

The reason for the attention is the impressive advance word on "Felicity." In general, TV critics and media buyers who have seen a few clips or an abbreviated pilot of the show have tapped "Felicity" as heir apparent to "Ally McBeal."

Fox's "Ally" and the WB's "Dawson's Creek" were the two true hits of the 1997-98 season, and the early word is that "Felicity" will be the standout series of the 37 new shows to launch during the next 12 weeks.

In fact, in an attempt to further cement the "Ally-Felicity" connection, some critics have labeled Felicity "Ally McBeal goes to college."

That's clever, but lazy and inaccurate. "Ally" contains farce, exaggeration, quirky characters, outlandish plot lines and occasional hallucinations. It is a comedy.

"Felicity" is a coming-of-age drama. It's about a high school graduate facing big decisions and sometimes making foolish ones. It's about a small-town California girl who suddenly finds herself at a college in New York City.

She's about to get the education of her life.

Russell, who never went to college, is getting her education on the fly.

"It's way overwhelming, the attention the show is receiving," says the 22-year-old, green-eyed, wavy-haired beauty. She sits at a cafe table, enjoying a beverage "al fresco" on a bright and breezy late afternoon in Southern California.

"People have been amazingly receptive to the show. And, with the exception of a few, people have been really nice."

Earlier this July day, she, her castmates and producers suffered an hour in a room with some 200 members of the TV press. It was an exercise in intimidation for Russell.

Russell has decided that the meeting with the press was "awful, the most horrifying experience. You're thinking, `Oh my God, all these people are going to judge the show off these one or two sentences I say. And I'll probably use the worst grammar.' And it's like, Oh! It's horrifying."

But her reaction is too in-tro-spec-tive. The press, lethargic after many dealings with mediocre shows, exhibited a genuine interest in Russell and "Felicity."

Russell may feel like an amateur in dealing with the media, but she is far from a freshman when it comes to acting.

From 1989 to 1992 she was a member of Disney Channel's "Mickey Mouse Club." She's had runs in four other series, all short-lived: "Emerald Cove" (1993), "Daddy's Girls" (1994), "Malibu Shores" (1996) and last summer's experiment on Fox, "Roar."

In 1992 she played Mandy in the film "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid." She's also had roles in a couple of TV movies, most notably as Erica in last year's "When Innocence Is Lost."

Her name is spelled K-e-r-i, "which is almost the Irish way," she says. "But my grandfather's name was Kermit, and that's who I'm named after."

Mom and Dad live in the Dallas area. Russell has been living on her own since age 17. She and her cat, Nala, live in Los Angeles.

Perhaps her acting experience, plus living on her own for the past five years, have prepared her for the meaty role of Felicity Porter. Whatever it is, she transmits the confusion and the complexity of a female college freshman with just the right amount of naivete. We buy into her, completely.

It helps to know a little of Felicity's past to understand her present. She's smart as in book smart, and she's not so naive that she doesn't know about boys and sex. She's simply inexperienced.

So on high school graduation day, she feels educated but detached. She's followed the path carefully laid out by her parents, and she feels good about that. But she also feels choked, "surrounded by people actually looking forward to their lives," she tells us in voice-over.

She doesn't feel joy, sorrow or anticipation. Just dread.

She has had an eye on classmate Ben Covington (Scott Speedman) for four years, but they've remained emotional strangers. But today, on impulse, she asks him to sign her yearbook.

"Sometimes it's the smallest decisions that can pretty much change your life forever," we hear her say to herself, to us.

Ben takes his time, and his words compress her heart. "Today, I don't know you but I admire you."

Zing!

"Suddenly I knew what everyone else was feeling," she says.

She confronts her parents. She cannot follow in her father's footsteps and take the premed track at Stanford University. Instead, she will follow her heart. Ben is going to college in New York. She will follow, even if it means seeking student loans, even though she doesn't know Ben Covington at all.

And we're off to the races, already intrigued as to what might happen next, then next. To the credit of its creators, filmmakers J.J. Abrams ("Armageddon," "Regarding Henry") and Matt Reeves ("The Pallbearer"), we're still intrigued at hour's end.

And the most attractive part of the show comes from Russell. It is innocence.

"It's ridiculous that she makes this choice for this boy she doesn't even talk to," says Russell. "But when she does, it instigates this whole new outlook in her being, you know?"

Abrams says, "If the show were about a young girl following a boy, it's a show I would never want to watch. I think one of the reasons that people seem to enjoy the show is because it isn't about that. There's a much bigger reason she ends up staying (at college). What she learns is that getting away and taking charge of your life is something incredibly important."

"That's the drama of the show," says Reeves, "that she will be making different mistakes because she's still becoming a formed person."

Reeves and Abrams have been film collaborators almost as long as they've been friends, which is 20 years. They are both 33.

"One night, having dinner, I told Matt this idea that I had about this young girl who makes this crazy mistake," says Abrams.

Every time they tried to make a movie out of it, it didn't work. "It felt like a phony," Abrams says.

So Abrams instead wrote a TV script that Reeves would direct. Together they approached Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard's company. Imagine's contribution shows up in the quality of the finished product.

Abrams and Reeves took "Felicity" to ABC, and when that network couldn't guarantee them a time slot, they took the show to the WB. The suits there leaped at it. They're giving Russell a primo time: 8 p.m., CDT, Wednesdays following "Dawson's Creek."

"Keri is astonishing," Reeves says. "This is simply a situation where she's been given the opportunity to express what's inside of her.

"I once said to her, `Wow, when we got into the scenes you really connected with everything you were doing.' And she said, `Well, you know, Felicity really says all the things that I'm thinking but just afraid to say.'

"So, I mean, I think it's really about the opportunity for her to express herself, and what you're seeing is Keri."

The compliment rushes over her, and she returns it at her expense.

"Up until now I haven't really liked anything I've done," she says. "This is the first time I've been really interested in a project."