they are speaking softly at Maryland this year. No bold predictions. No beating of the drums. Just whispers: "This might be one fine football team."

That's what the players will tell you if you back them against a wall and demand that they say something beyond "We're looking forward to Villanova (the season opener)." Coach Jerry Claiborne, in a rare flash of strightforward analysis, put it this way: "We've got guys who can run, guys who can catch and guys who can tackle. The question is: can we block and can we throw with consistency?"

The other question is whether they can survive a 15-day stretch in which they play three opponents ranked in the preseason top 20: North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Penn State.

The Terrapins have not won the Atlantic coast Conference championship since 1976. Their Sept. 27 game in Chapel Hill with Carolina will probably decide whether they can regain the title they held from 1974-76.

Last season may have been the toughest Claiborne has had to live with in his eight years in College Park. He lost three key players, Lloyd Burruss, Marlin Van Horn and Eric Sievers, early. As the season progressed, others went down with assorted injuries.

The injuries, combined with a one dimensional offense, produced a fur-game losing streak at midseason, the first streak of that length in Claiborne's years at Maryland. The Terps won their last four to finish 7-4 but that was deceiving. Only one of the victories, over North Carolina, could be considered inpressive. Duke and Louisville were awful teams and Virginia was even more crippled than the Terps by the season finale.

Now though, with Burruss, Sievers and Van Horn back for a fifth year because they missed last season; with tailback Charlie Wysocki (1,140 yards); with an outstanding defense returning virtually intact and with All-America place kicker Dale Castro, the Terps are a deep, experienced team -- except on the offensive line.

There, four graduated starters must be replaced. They are especially crcial because quarterback Mike Tice, who came on strong the last four games, must be protected. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, mobility is not his forte.

The talent is there. Claiborne and offensive coordinator Jerry Eisaman insist that with everyone healthy, they will not run as conservative an offense as in the past. The Terps should win their three games -- against Villanova, Vanderbilt and West Virginia -- without much difficulty before facing the Big Three.

If the offensive line can mature during those three warmup games and if Claiborne gives Tice a chance to prove he is the kind of quarterback he was reputed to be four years ago as a high school senior, Maryland could rise again in 1980.