As far as the executives of ABC television are concerned, Saturday night's preseason game between the Washington Federals and the Tampa Bay Bandits is a cipher, a nonevent.

Although most of the United States Football League's 12 franchises will play one or more games in preparation for the league's opener March 6, ABC insisted in its contract with the USFL that there be no exhibition games.

Call them scrimmages, then. Call them intersquad skirmishes or preliminary frolics if you wish, said the broadcasting company: We want to say we are televising the first USFL game ever played come March 6.

And so it shall be. Sixty minutes of football will be played but no one dares call it a "real" exhibition.

But hocus-pocus and semantics aside, more than 5,000 people have already bought tickets to the game. No radio or television station is broadcasting the game in Washington.

The teams have agreed to several modifications in the rules. There will be no tackling the quarterback, only fair catches on punts and unlimited timeouts "within reason."

ABC's sense of historical importance notwithstanding, Federals Coach Ray Jauch said, "It will pretty much be a normal game."

Jauch will probably start quarterback Kim McQuilken and running backs Craig James and James Mayberry. Along the offensive line will be tackles Joel Patten and Dave Pacella, guards Myke Horton and Brian Musselman and center Joe Bock.

Phil Dubois will start at tight end, but the two wide receiver spots are undecided, with Marc Brown, Rodney Goosby, Walker Lee and Reggie Smith among the top contenders.

Bob Barber and Drew Taylor will open at defensive end, with Coy Bacon possibly being used as a designated pass rusher. Starting at the tackles will be Bennie Smith and Ron Estay, an all-Canadian Football League player under Jauch with the Edmonton Eskimos who was acquired last week.

Gregg Butler and Jeff Brown will start at the corners and Donnie Harris and Doug Greene at the safeties, but the linebacking positions are still being contested.

Obed Ariri appears to have won the place-kicking spot. Mike Forslund, one of five quarterbacks remaining in camp, is competing with Steven Hoffman for the punting job.

The game is important especially to second- and third-team players. All USFL teams are required to trim their rosters to 58 players by Sunday; the Federals have 67.

"I'm always torn over how to work these things," said Jauch. "On the one hand, you want to get a handle on all your players and see who you want to keep. So you want to give everyone a lot of time. On the other hand, you want to get your first- and second-string players ready for the regular season."

Coached by Steve Spurrier, a former Heisman Trophy winner and San Francisco 49ers quarterback, the Bandits defeated the Boston Breakers, 10-3, last week.

The Bandits feature wide receiver Danny Buggs, who played five years in the NFL, three with the Redskins, and quarterback John Reaves, who played with the Eagles, Bengals, Vikings and Oilers.

The Bandits also have defensive back Glen Edwards, an 11-year veteran with the Steelers and Chargers.

Boston canceled a scheduled game with the Federals here next week, choosing to break camp early. The Federals have an informal, 48-play scrimmage with the Birmingham Stallions scheduled for Feb. 25 before returning to Washington.