In the last four years Maryland has played 11 football games that legitimately could be labeled crucial. In each one, the Terps either had a chance to win or virtually clinch an Atlantic Coast Conference championship or gain national prestige by beating a ranked opponent.

The Terrapins lost every game. Eleven chances, 11 losses.

Ask Coach Jerry Claiborne about those games, about his team's inability to beat a good team, and he will recite plays from each game. He will say that if one or two plays had been different his team would have won. And if the Terrapins had won those games, no one would be saying that Maryland football has slipped the last four seasons. No one would be whispering that Maryland beats mediocre teams but gets a tight collar when it has to play Penn State, Pittsburgh or a top ACC team.

"Football is an 'iffen' game," Claiborne said. "If we had gotten a break or executed a play differently in a lot of those games, we would have won and you wouldn't be asking these questions."

Ifs, ands or buts aside, Maryland has not won a key game in four seasons. Even in 1976 the Terps' 11-0 regular-season record was built against unranked, largely mediocre opposition. Questions are inevitable.

"You can look at it both ways," said Mark Manges, a former Maryland quarterback. "In '75, we lost to Penn State, 15-13, when Mike (Sochko) just missed a field goal on the last play of the game. No question in my mind this is a different program if that kick is good. The Penn State stigama would have been gone.

"But people forget that the two games after that we were lucky to win against bad teams (Cincinnati and a 2-9 Clemson team). We won those games by two points and we were lucky. What if we lose those games? No bowl, no ACC title. It works both ways."

Claiborne can argue that his team, 12-7 over the last two years, could have been 16-3. But it could also be 8-11.

In the past four seasons, Maryland has a 29-14 record. But only one of those victories is over a top 20 team. Only seven of 29, including current records this season, were over teams with winning records.

Maryland's victims outside the ACC include Villanova (three times), Louisville (twice), Syracuse (twice), Richmond, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Tulane and Minnesota. Only Minnesota had a winning team (7-5 in 1977).

Claiborne won't concede that the program has gone backward. "I will never underrate our talent," he said. "I think we've had the players to win. I think if our program has lacked anything the last couple of years it's been speed. We just haven't had the guys who can make the big play."

Maryland has been hurt in recent years by injuries, many to key players. Several players, past and present, say the injuries are not a coincidence. "They get people injured because they beat heads in practice every day," Manges said. "They never give their guys a day off and they don't protect people who need protecting. What is the point of running your first-string tailback 25 times in the spring game? How many knee injuries did they have in spring ball last year? (Seven.) They get people hurt because they work so hard. And, sometimes they leave their game on the practice field because they work so hard."

Also hurting Maryland is a fact of life the school cannot control: the improvement of the rest of the ACC. In his first five years at Maryland, Claiborne was well ahead of other ACC programs in the use of weight-lifting, organization of time and offseason training programs. Between 1973 and 1976, Maryland dominated the league, winning three titles and 21 straight conference games.

Now though, partly by copying some of Claiborne's methods, including the use of weights, offseason training and tight organization, the league is catching up. Maryland's conference record the last four seasons is 15-6. But this will probably be the Terps' fourth straight year without a title. In the past, Maryland could count on Wake Forest, Duke and Virginia as sure wins. That is no longer true.

"Jerry Claiborne was way ahead of his time in this league," said UNC's Dick Crum. "For a long time, Maryland was THE team. Now, others are doing what he's already done."

Wake's John Mackovic: "No one is better at building a football program than Jerry Claiborne. He's got a superb football mind."

Why, then, do the Terps have to struggle to beat Villanova, Cincinnati and Richmond? Why do they consistently lose to ranked teams? Why is Claiborne 0-8 against Penn State?

"With Penn State, I don't think it's been any one thing," Claiborne said. It's just been different things different years."

"It's psychological," said Larry Dick, another ex-quarterback. "Maryland football players don't believe they can beat Penn State. So many of them come from Pennsylvania. A lot of them grow up dreaming of playing for Penn State. When it doesn't happen, beating them becomes an obsession. The guys overreact to everything. When it gets tough, collars get awfully tight."

Not being able to beat Penn State is merely a symptom of the larger problem: Maryland football has reached a plateau -- it is better than Villanova, Richmond, Vanderbilt, Duke and Kentucky. The Terps will beat these teams eight times out of 10. But it is not as good as Penn State, Pittsburgh, Alabama and Georgia.Maryland will lose to these teams eight times out of 10.

Beating mediocre teams consistently will get the Terps to a minor bowl most years (they may go to a bowl this year without a victory over a team with a winning record). But it will not bring national recognition. And, it will not fill Byrd Stadium.

"If I knew how to make my players perfect, we'd never lose and I'd be a millionaire," said Claiborne. "I don't have all the answers."

Others who have been part of the program suggest different reasons for Maryland's malaise. One seems to stand out: Claiborne's inflexibility.

Few football programs have the rigid rules and rigorous time demands that Maryland does. Few football coaches work their players as hard as Claiborne does. Maryland has a reputation as a strict, head-knocking place, which sometimes hurts its recruiting. Maryland has not recruited badly in recent years but many feel it can recruit better.

"Part of the problem is not the players they can't get but the players they won't take," said Bob Avellini, former Terp quarterback now with the Chicago Bears. "We've got guys on this team who couldn't make it at Maryland because they don't meet their height requirements or their weight requirements or their strength requirements. A guy doesn't have to be 6-foot-3, 230 and run a 4.5 40 to be a good football player. They don't seem to realize that when they recruit."

A prime example of that is Chris Havener, the team's leading receiver. As a freshman walk-on, Havener had to almost beg for a uniform because he wasn't fast or strong. As it turned out, he could catch anything thrown in his direction, get open consistently and take hits that bigger, stronger players couldn't handle.

"A lot of people say Maryland can't recruit as well as Penn State and Pitt," Manges said. "I don't really think the problem is that simple.

"Maryland loses people. Guys get into the program and can't handle the discipline."

One statistic commonly cited by Maryland officials is that 90 percent of the seniors on the football team graduate. But the statistic Manges talked about -- involving attrition -- is different. About 40 percent of the players Maryland signs to scholarships are no longer on the team four years later.

Many players have openly resented the way they were treated by Claiborne and the coaching staff. Steve Atkins, perhaps the most talented player ever recruited by Claiborne, left the school bitter.

"When the story came out about my supposedly signing with an agent illegally, Coach Claiborne called me," Atkins said. "He didn't care if I was in trouble, he just wanted to be sure I wouldn't say anything to hurt Maryland football. But when I was cleared and got drafted by the Packers, I never heard a word."

Claiborne and his assistants, according to Atkins, never believed he was hurt. He says assistant coaches tried to pressure him into playing in the 1977 Cotton Bowl when he was still injured. Once, during a film meeting, after an assistant coach said, "Steve, you embarrassed me," Atkins grabbed the coach.

"Steve grabbed him and told him if he ever said that again, he'd beat the hell out of him," said one player who witnessed the incident. "All the coaches constantly try to embarrass you into doing things the 'Maryland Way.' If you don't conform they run around whispering that there's something wrong with you. That's what they did to Steve."

Claiborne's rules, which he refuses to discuss -- "they're between me and my players" -- are simple:

Players must live on the seventh and eighth floors of Ellicott Hall, across from Byrd Stadium. The only exceptions are married players.

Every night except Saturday, players must be in their rooms by 11. Four assistant coaches live in the dormitory to enforce the curfew. Saturday it is extended until 1 a.m.

No liquor, no drugs and no women are allowed in a player's room. Unlike the curfew, which is lifted during the offseason, these rules are enforced year-round.

"We eat together, sleep together, practice together, play together, look at films together," said one senior. "By October we're all sick of looking at each other."

Several players were more succinct: "They tell us to act like men, then they treat us like children."

"My players know that if they think we have a rule that isn't making them better football players, better students or better people they can come in here and we'll talk about it," Claiborne said. "I lived in a football dorm at Kentucky and I met other students. It's a matter of choice."

Players insist it isn't a matter of choice, that with football and studying there is no time for socializing. As for going to Clairborne to suggest changes, several say they will -- after their eligibility is used up.

"When I'm done I'm going to walk in and tell him I think there's a lot around here that could use changing, not just for the sake of the players but for the sake of the program," one senior said. "But I'm sure he won't want to hear it."

Because they live together and pretty much keep to themselves, the football players are stereotyped by many of the students on campus. "It really isn't so much them as people like (Athletic Director Jim) Kehoe and Claiborne," said Tim Kelly, editor of the student newspaper, The Diamondback. "Kehoe and Clairborne come across kind of conservative and southern. That doesn't really appeal to a lot of students."

"It's hard for the football players to come out of their shells and meet people. When are they going to do it? Between the 16 minutes they have to eat and the three minutes, 45 seconds they have to shower?"

The students call Ellicott the zoo. Many of the players have a different name for it: jail.

"I'm 22 years old," said one senior."I don't need someone telling me to go to bed or what I can or can't do with my girlfriend.

"The reason they do it is simple. It's because it's easier for them that way. They can keep a leash on us."

Claiborne has been known to show up in the dorm to take a walk down the hall. "Once, I was leaving to go somewhere and I ran into Coach Claiborne just as I was shutting the door," said Randy White, the 1974 Outland Trophy winner. "He looked inside and saw I hadn't made the bed. He said, 'If you can't do the little things right, how are you going to do the big things right?'"

The larger message in the White incident is clear to all those who have played for Claiborne: He is always watching.

Maryland football will be the same as long as Jerry Claiborne remains the head coach. Kehoe, the man who hired him, still is a 100 percent supporter. "All I can ask of a coach is that he produce a solid team each year," Kehoe said. "That means seven or eight wins and, if we're lucky, a bowl bid. Jerry has certainly done that.

"More important, he's a good man.He's interested in educating his players. They make a good appearance for the school. He's a decent, honest man. I can't ask any more of him than he's given."

Peter O'Malley, chairman of the athletic committee on the Board of Regents, also is a Claiborne supporter. "I don't judge a coach on wins and losses because that isn't my role," he said. "I judge him on whether his athletes graduate and whether I think he represents the university and what I would like to see it stand for well. Claiborne grades well in all categories in my association with him."

With Claiborne in charge, the tailback will carry 35 or more times a game and the offense will be as conservative as it has been the last nine seasons; fans will complain the team is dull, and players will wish their coach would losen up, just a little. It also means that Maryland will be in the Peach-Garden State-Hall of Fame-Tangerine Bowl often but the Cotton-Orange-Sugar Bowl almost never, perhaps not at all.

And it means that Jerry Claiborne will continue doing things the way he learned them more than 30 years ago under Bear Bryant.