It was the afternoon before the season-opener, when most college football coaches are glued to their office chairs, shifting last-minute Xs and Os in hope of finding the magic formula for victory the next day.

Yet here was Maryland's Jerry Clairborne of the university tennis courts, obviously enjoying a triumph in a game of doubles. Was Claiborne swayed by that 15-point oddsmakers' favoritism? Was he giving Villanova the once-over-lightly treatment?

Hardly, Claiborne considers today's 1:30 Byrd Stadium opponent "the best Villanova team we've played against since I've been here," and this is the teams' eighth meeting since Clairborne came to College Park in 1972. The tennis ritual dates back even farther.

"I'm a whole lot better off if I try to get my mind relaxed, to let my mind rest from football," Claiborne said. "I try to play every Thursday or Friday before a game. It doesn't interfere. The game plans are ready. I go out with friends and take out my frustrations on the tennis ball."

This week, there have been frustrations. For one atypical example, thieves invaded his Hyattsville home and absconded with abundant loot that included a briefcase containing the Villanova game plans and scouting reports.

There were copies, of course, and they all indicate that Maryland can expect an afternoon similar to last year, when a last-minute touchdown finally outcame Dick Bedesem's Wildcats, 24-20.

"Villanova has more depth and more experience," Claiborne said. "They're a solid football team. They have 16 seniors who started against us last year as juniors, but three of them have been beaten out by underclassmen.

"They have four seniors in the backfield who've been running the wishbone for four years and they're not going to make many mistakes. I can't pronounce their kicker's name (Joe Borajkiewicz), but he averaged 39.6 yards on a lot of kicks last year, and thats pretty good kicking. I respect them to the utmost."

As for his own Terrapins, Claiborne is awaiting this afternoon's contest for clues as to just how good they will be.

"I just don't know," Claiborne said. "We've got to play up to our potential every game. We can't dominate people unless we do play up to our potential. If we're not ready any week, we'll have trouble.

"I'm anxious to play somebody. I have no deep concerns, I'm just "anticipating. Our offense has had a good scrimmage against our defense and a bad scrimmage. We've looked good against the scout team and bad against the scout team.

"Now I want to go against anybody else to see what we've accomplished. I'm anxious to see if our offensive line (almost completely rebuilt) is solid, whether our quarterback (Mike Tice), can be effective consistently, whether our defense is as sound as we hope, whether our kicker, Dale Castro, will have another great year.

"Our players have worked hard in the spring and they've worked hard in the fall. I think they want to have a good season."

A year ago, although squeaking past Villanova, Maryland would up a disappointing 7-4 and missed a bowl game for the first time in seven years. The athletic department lost money and Athletic Director Carl James departed for the Big Eight commissioner's office, to be replaced by his predecessor, Jim Kohoe.

Despite a plethora of promotions, there will be empty seats today. It will take a convincing victory to fill them in future weeks and Maryland cannot afford to stumble against Villanova. It is a safe bet that the Terrapins will not be looking past the Wildcats today, as they did a year ago with Clemson on the upcoming menu.

"I think they're a cut above us," Bedesem said of the Terrapins. "Last year, they were definitely looking past us. This year, at least they know we're coming."

"We've played them almost every year and this is the first time they had a man at our spring game," said Ted Aceto, Villanova's athletic director.

Truly, Claiborne could serve and volley without fear of having missed an angle.