For Maryland football Coach Jerry Claiborne, the sweet outweighed the bitter in 1978.

The 9-2 squad on its way to the Dec. 23 Sun Bowl is, in comparison with Claiborne's recent teams, thin on talent. But it is closer to his heart.

"He's really loved this group," said Faye Claiborne, the coach's wife.

The team's two losses stung all the more, precisely because it had been a group that was expected to do nothing but came to feel it could do anything. Before the season, the Terps were picked to finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but after eight games, they were playing for a shot at the national championship.

"Before the season began, to win a national championship sounded like a miracle," said Claiborne. "But when we were 8-0 and getting ready to play Penn State, it was a real possibility. That's why I'm so proud of this team.

"We had some people playing who were really not very good football players, who came through for us. We had to juggle people around, and they didn't complain. This is the type of thing that made our team. It was a gratifying season."

If the first eight victories were especially sweet, the two defeats were distinctly bitter. The 27-3 loss to Penn State showed a national television audience that the Terrapins were struggling to even compete, that they were a dimension away from the likes of the Nittany Lions. It was an embarrassment.

The four-point loss to Clemson was the sadder of the two, however, because it deprived Maryland of an Atlantic Coast Conference title, a probable Orange Bowl bid and some coaching credibility.

A decision to kick a field goal with 1:56 remaining, rather than go for a 17-yard touchdown and a two-point conversion, still nags at the imaginations of Maryland fans, but not at the head coach.

Maryland beat only two teams with winning records (N. C. State and Louisville) but lost only to the No. 1 and No. 7 teams in the nation.

"Considering what we had to start with, I'm very proud of the way they performed," said Claiborne. "The Penn State game was a disappointment, of course, because we didn't play as well as we could have. Penn State was better than we were, man for man.

"But the Clemson game -- after getting that far, a 9-1 record, it really hurt to lose that one. I felt like our strength let us down -- our pass defense and our (whole) defense. Those two long touchdown passes hurt us, but then to also have Clemson take the ball and drive right down the field for the winning touchdown -- I think we lost our poise.

"As for the end of the game -- I didn't even hesitate to kick the field goal and I wouldn't hesitate if I had to do it again. How many people score a touchdown on fourth and 17? I just felt we had a better chance, with three timeouts, to recover the onside kick and move the ball than make a touchdown on fourth and 17 and the twopoint conversion.

"It was not a question of the skill of any of our players. It's just that your chances of scoring in that situation, no matter who your quarterback is, are slim and none. If we'd gotten the ball and scored, I'd be a genius."

Claiborne reflected on the highlights of the season, naming the fourth-quarter come-from-behind rallies in the Louisville and North Carolina games, and the two quick touchdowns in the N. C. State game.

"I still remember, in the North Carolina game, that third-and-23 pass that Timmy (O'Hare) completed, the super catch by Gary Ellis," said Claiborne. "Overall, to lose to the No. 1 and 7 teams is not too bad."

Claiborne votes in the United Press International coaches' poll, and said he voted Maryland either 10th or 11th, ahead of the teams with three losses. A 9-2 record is a pretty lofty mark for a Sun Bowl envoy but Claiborne points out that the Terrapins were not conference champions, and therefore glad to be going to El Paso to face Texas, ranked 14th (AP) and 17th (UPI). Maryland is 12th in UPI and 13th in Associated Press.