It's a long way from the national championship, but Saturday night's Tangerine Bowl matchup between Maryland and Florida is a big deal here.

"Everybody down here's been just great," Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne said today. "We've been treated super since we got here."

The two teams have been wined and dined almost since they arrived Sunday in this town, known more for Mickey Mouse and Disneyworld than football. Tangerine Bowl officials, led by former LSU Coach Charley McLendon, are trying to make their bowl as attractive as possible for participants, a necessity because the Tangerine is 14th among the 15 bowl games in financial payoff.

For the teams, this game is an opportunity. Maryland (8-3) did not win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and lost its three crucial games of the regular season -- to Pittsburgh, Penn State and ACC champion North Carolina. But a victory over the Gators likely will land the Terps in the top 20 in the final polls, a spot they haven't been in since 1976.

Florida, coming off an 0-10-1 first season under Coach Charley Pell, came out flying this season, winning six of its first seven games. Then, on national TV, the Gators had Georgia beaten until a 93-yard pass play beat them in the final minute. Since then, Florida has won just once -- a last-second victory over Kentucky -- and finished the regular season 7-4.

So, each team has something to prove, knowing its season will be measured largely by how it does here. That means neither coach is terribly thrilled over the excursions to Disneyworld, Cypress Gardens and Circus World that the players are being trotted off to each afternoon. But knowing that the other guy's players are just as distracted as his own seems to be keeping Pell and Clairborne happy.

Both coaches have worked their teams hard since arriving, getting them up by 7 a.m. for breakfast. Meetings and practices start at 9 a.m. and last about two hours. Once practice is over, the players can play off the field.

"We all want to win the game a lot," Maryland quarterback Mike Tice said. "I think both teams are taking it really seriously. But, we're in Florida and we're having a good time, too. That's what makes a bowl game nice."

Until five years ago, the Tangerine Bowl matched the Mid-American Conference champion against anyone the committee could find. Few teams wanted to risk a successful season by playing Miami of Ohio or Bowling Green in a bowl with no television, little money and exposure only if the Mid-American champion pulled an upset. Florida was one of those upset victims in 1973, losing to Miami of Ohio to finish with a 7-5 record.

When the contract with the conference ended, the Tangerine Bowl was expanded and bowl officials decided to seek more well-known teams. It hasn't been easy. Last year officials practically had to beg a 6-5 LSU team to come here to play Wake Forest.

This will be the first time since the conference tieup was eliminated that the winner of the game is virtually certain to land in the top 20. There is still no network TV contract and by the time the two schools split the $350,000 bowl payoff with fellow conference members, profits will be minimal.

But the existence of these bowls allows such schools as Maryland and Florida to finish their seasons admidst an aura of success. Players, coaches and fans are treated like kings for a week and the committee has promoted the game well enough this year that a record crowd of more than 50,000 is expected. g

In the vernacular of college sports, this is a minor bowl.But, to the people involved, this is a major week. It means Maryland can say all next season that it has been to seven bowls in eight years. It means Pell can keep Florida alums quiet next fall by pointing out he went from 0-10-1 to a bowl bid. It means business booms here for a week that is traditionally slow in the tourist industry.

Maryland has a problem at tight end John Tice, who normally shares time with Eric Sievers, has a badly bruised shoulder and is very doubtful. His backup, Bill Pugh, separated a shoulder Tuesday and won't play. So Claiborne is working offensive tackle Les Boring at tight end in practice to have him available to block on double tight-end situations. "We don't want them knowing which side we'll be running every time," Claiborne said . . . The Terps are practicing at Colonial High School, from where leading receiver Chris Havener graduated. Havener's family, which lives in St. Petersburg, and his friends have bought 44 tickets . . . Pell and Claiborne met twice when Pell was coach at Clemson and split, the Terps winning, 21-14, in 1977 and Clemson winning, 28-24, for the ACC championship in 1978.