The folks at ABC television insisted they call it a "scrimmage" rather than an exhibition, but the Washington Federals probably will just call it a disappointment.

In their first and only preseason game, the Federals lost to the Tampa Bay Bandits, 20-7, at the Gator Bowl in front of 5,022 Floridians with a sense of humor and history.

"It shows one thing," said Coach Ray Jauch. "It shows we have a lot of work to do."

The game especially showed that work is needed in the secondary and on the offensive line. Tampa Bay quarterbacks Jimmy Jordan and John Reaves riddled the secondary while the Federals' offensive line had a difficult time protecting its passers, Kim McQuilken and Mike Hohensee. On one drive in the second half the Bandits sacked Hohensee three times.

"We have a young offensive line," said McQuilken. "I think they had a little trouble adjusting to the 3-4 defense."

The brightest light in the Federals' gloom was Craig James, a Southern Methodist tailback who signed a contract worth nearly $2 million. James gained 94 yards on 11 carries, including a 39-yard touchdown run in the second half.

Former Redskins receiver Danny Buggs and Eric Truvillon caught touchdown passes for Tampa Bay. Running back Rickey Williams scored for the Bandits on a one-yard run.

All USFL teams will reduce their rosters to 58 players Sunday. Although the Federals probably will cut a few fullbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs, Jauch said more than just a streamlined club would be necessary to win.

"You can practice things over and over until the cows come home," he said. "But eventually you need the personnel and we won't stop looking for it."

This was the Federals' only game before the season opener March 6 against the Chicago Blitz at RFK Stadium. Some teams, including the Bandits, will have played three times before the regular season begins, but most will only play once or twice.

"It doesn't help much to start a new season with a new team after only one game," said McQuilken, who completed six of 10 passes for 61 yards, with one interception. "The only consolation is that just about everybody else is in the same position."

On their opening drive, from their 29, the Federals, behind McQuilken's passing and James' running, looked crisp. After McQuilken passed to Reggie Smith, Marc Brown and Phil DuBois, Washington was at the Tampa Bay 12. But the drive ended when Jeff George intercepted McQuilken's pass in the end zone.

With John Reaves, formerly of the Eagles, Bengals, Vikings and Oilers, quarterbacking, the Bandits scored on their first possession. A 51-yard pass to Buggs got them to Washington's 14 and signaled a night of breakdowns in the Federals' secondary.

"We made a lot of mental mistakes," defensive back Donnie Harris said, "leaving a lot of zones uncovered. That deep pass to Buggs just caught us by surprise."

Buggs ended the drive, scoring on a 14-yard pass with 22:02 left in the first half.

The Bandits ended the half with a sustained scoring drive, this time directed by former Florida State quarterback Jimmy Jordan. Jordan completed passes to Jackie Flowers and Williams to set up a first down at the Federals' 33 with time running out.

Truvillon beat Mike Guess and Hollis Hall and took in Jordan's pass for a touchdown with 16 seconds left as Tampa Bay raised its lead to 14-0.

In the second half, without James in the backfield, the Federals could not get a ground game going. On their first drive, Bobby Hammond ran the ball five times, gaining only two yards net.

But when Hammond left the game with a minor injury, James returned.

"No one told me to go in, I just did it," said James.

He promptly took a handoff from Hohensee and ran 39 yards for the touchdown that made it 14-7 with 20:49 left in the game.

"At least we know what Craig James can do," said Jauch.

The Bandits widened their lead, however, on their next drive. Reaves again passed to Buggs, with gains of 24, 15 and 28 yards setting up Williams' one-yard touchdown plunge with 21:00 left. The extra point failed and the scoring ended at 20-7.

Coy Bacon, the 39-year-old defensive end who was cut by the Redskins in 1981, sounded a jovial note: "We lost, but I'm getting the old feeling back, getting back into the click of things."