After his team had been soundly beaten, 35-20, by a Florida team that gave away a touchdown and was called for 111 yards in penalties, Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne was asked if he still thought he had one of the 20 best football teams in the country.

"I do," Claiborne said. "I think we belong in the top 20."

When the final polls come out in two weeks, Claiborne's opinion will be in the minority. His team will be unranked a fourth straight year. A national ranking was the Terps' goal going into the Tangerine Bowl, since they had already been denied the Atlantic Coast Conference title a fourth straight time.

Instead, they ended the season 8-4, again failing to beat a good team. Looking back on the roller coaster 1980 season, it is perhaps more accurate to break the season down 4-4-4.

In four games, the Terps were excellent, routing N.C. State, Clemson and Virginia and beating a good West Virginia team, 14-11, in a well-played contest. In four other games, against Villanova, Vanderbilt, Duke and Wake Forest, the Terps were lousy, their opponents worse.

And, most disappointing, the Terps were manhandled by four superior opponents, losing to North Carolina, 17-3; to Pittsburgh, 38-9; to Penn State, 24-10, and to Florida, 35-20.

Those losses and the fact that none of the games was really a contest in the fourth quarter will haunt Claiborne during the offseason. He must replace 21 seniors next season, including the top five players in his secondary, the extremely reliable punter and place-kicker Dale Castro, quarterback Mike Tice, the top three receivers and several key linemen.

But one of Claiborne's strengths as a coach is his use of 40 to 50 players in a game. That way, he not only builds depth, but has players with experience ready to step in for exciting seniors. That was true this year.

Next season, the offense will lose receivers Chris Havener and Jan Carinci, tight end Eric Sievers, Tice, centers Kyle Lorton and Bruce Byrom, fullback Rick Fasano and tackle Scott Fanz.Spencer Scriber and Mike Lewis played often as receivers, John Tice may have been the best tight end, Jeff Rodenberger and John Nash are proven fullbacks, and Claiborne always finds linemen. This year he replaced his guards and tackles with little trouble.

Quarterback, a controversial spot the last two years with Tice the starter, will be wide open next spring. Brent Dewitz, a fourt-year junior, should be ahead of fifth-year senior Bob Milkovich and redshirt sophomore Boomer Esiason going into spring practice. Claiborne has had trouble recruiting a pass-oriented quarterback because most high school stars shy away from his ball control offense.

One way Claiborne could improve his offense is to utilize backup tailbacks Wayne Wingfield and Tim Whittie better. These are two of the Terps' most gifted athletes and each has spent two years on the bench behind the durable Wysocki.

With freshman Willie Joyner having shown he can, and will, replace Charlie Wysocki in 1982, Claiborne could switch Wingfield and Whittie to positions where the Terps are thin: wide receiver or defensive back. Even if injuries cropped up at tailback, both players could relearn their old position in days.

On defense, Marlin Van Horn, the heart of the unit the second half of the season, will depart. So will tackles Todd Benson and Ed Gall, and ends Brad Senft and Pete Glamp. At each of these positions, Claiborne alternated two players almost all year. People such as Frank Kolenic at guard, Mark Duda and Gurnest Brown at tackles and Steve Wilson and Howard Eubanks (starters most of the year after Senft and Glamp were hurt) at end, can step in.

The first four linebackers will return, as will Darnell Dailey, a redshirt after getting hurt in preseason. The secondary will concern Claiborne in the spring. The top five players will be gone, including Lloyd Burruss, Sammy Johnson, Steve Trimble and Ralph Lary, each an all-conference caliber player at some time in his career. The Terps will be inexperienced for the first time in years in the secondary next fall.

Finally, Claiborne's beloved kicking game will suffer. Castro was as good as they come the last two years and will be hard to replace. Steve Adams, a transfer from Richmond, has potential, and Claiborne also has an uncanny knack for coming up with kickers.

Basically, the '81 Terps will be similar to the '80 Terps, who were similar to the '79 Terps: strong, defensively, tailback-oriented offensively. sThere will be a break however: the schedule. Penn State and Pittsburgh will be gone, replaced by Florida and Miami, good teams but not as good as the other two. North Carolina, the one team clearly superior to the Terps in the ACC this year, is the one team that will lose more key players than Maryland.

Potentially, next season could be a return to the nine of 10 victory plateau with an ACC title. That was the hope this year, but it never happened. The 1980 Terrapins were a solid, plodding team.

If the 1981 Terps are to shed that plodding image and move back into the top 20, they will have to get better -- especially on offense.

That won't be easy.