For reasons that can be crisply wrapped in one team-wide bandage, Maryland all but clinched the one national distinction it wanted to avoid yesterday: most overrated team in the country.

From top-10 perches in nearly every preseason poll - and probably even Faye Claiborne's - the Terrapins figure to finish no better than second in the league they dominated for the last three years, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Once Maryland might have been able to lose starter after starter and still whip its ACC rivals. Now the pussycats have large claws, as was evident during North Carolina's 16-7 victory that left the Terrapins 4-4 for the season.

The affair took a significant and mildly x-rated turn right from the start, when Steve Atkins limped to the sideline after the opening kickoff and dropped his pants. Tape was applied to a troublesome right hamstring that limited him to 10 carries for the game.

Later, their Chris Hanburger, linebacker Brad Carr, was hurt seriously enough to miss the final two possessions of the first half and the entire second half. With Mark Manges, Doug Harbert and other also sidelined, Maryland might have a better team in sick bay than many other schools suit up.

There is little for even the most dedicated second-guesser to question about the Terrapin loss except to wonder why they cannot seem to be able to run any sort of offensive series inside the opposition's 10-yard line without calling time for a committee meeting.

There were all manner of grumbles when Maryland opted to try for a touchdown from the Carolina two-yard line on fourth down instead of a chippie field goal with a 7-0 lead in the first half.

Everywhere but here. The play might have been more imaginative, but the thinking was right - and anytime a major-college coach gets bold he draws appaluse, here anyway. Maryland had a chance for a telling blow - a two-touchdown lead against a team that makes George Allen's offense appear wildly bold by contrast.

The Maryland minds guessed wrong. They used the same play that had produced a touchdown earlier from the same distance, the tailback up the middle. This time they discovered you cannot fool a Tar Heel all of the time after all, as linebacker Buddy Curry smacked George Scott at the one.

Coach Jerry Caliborne's decision to stick with his turtle offense - the one that hides inside a shell with even the tiniest of leads - seemed justified until one of the few entertaining Carolina plays caught the Maryland defense in a rare moment of confusion.

It was a third-quarter pass that, as safety Jon Claiborne later explained, literally had half the Terrapin defenders going one way and the other half scattered elsewhere. No one was near little Mel Collins and his quarterback delivered the ball on target at the 12.

Claiborne was the closest Terrapin and he tried for Collins at the five.

"I saw him coming," Collins said, "and I just stopped and let him run by." Then Collins trotted into the end zone to complete a 36-yard touchdown play. That lifted Carolina into a tie and allowed the fine Carolina defense to successfully play peek-a-boo with quarterback Larry Dick.

"What we do," said safety Alan Caldwell, "is let the quarterback think his receiver is open, lay off just a little when he makes his cut - and then go like mad when the ball is released.

"We encouraged them to throw, and then we sort of squad down so it looks like the quarterback can throw over us. Then we jump and get it. We almost know when they're going to throw."

Caldwell and his eronies grabbed four of Dick's passes and Tom Biddle converted two of them into field goals. He and Collins are from the fertile recruiting grounds Carolina annually havests, Maryland's back yard, Northern Virginia.

"No, I wasn't close to coming to Maryland," said Collins. "It was too close to home. I wanted to get a little ways away."

The Carolina defense can convince itself it pitched a shutout, because the only Maryland touchdown came on a two-yard charge after cornerback Lloyd Burruss intercepted a Carolina sideline pass and returned it 63 yards. Dick set it up with his first interception a play earlier.

Still, the one pass Dick might well want most to throw again was not one of the interceptions. It came on second-and-goal from the Carolina five two plays before the ill-fated fourth-down gamble. Dean Richards was embarrassingly open - but Dick overthrew him.

This was Maryland's fourth - and final - try to convince the world beyond the beltway that it is worthy of some sort of bowl game. The preseason visions had been as lofty as the Orange Bowl.

Now the Sun Bowl and a new entry called the Hall of Fame Classic in Birmingham suddenly seem important. And that was before the kickoff yesterday.