Coach Bobby Ross and his players seem to agree that Saturday's Sun Bowl contest here with Tennessee is Maryland's most important football game in the last three years.

It's easy to see why. If the 12th-ranked Terrapins win, they would move into the top 10 of the final Associated Press polls for the first time since the 1976 season. It would also break a string of four bowl losses and infinitely improve Maryland's national image. The game will be televised nationally (WDVM-TV-9, 3 p.m.).

Maryland's six-game winning streak is the third-longest in the nation, behind Brigham Young's 24 and Florida's nine. But a loss Saturday would mean Maryland ending another season on a down note.

"We've won the ACC title two years in a row and been in bowl games each year," defensive guard Bruce Mesner said today. "It's time to move past that. It's time to set our goals higher. We want people to talk about us with Nebraska and Oklahoma. We're that good, but we have to show it on Saturday."

Jess Atkinson, Maryland's senior kicker, said, "The main problem if we don't win this game is that we'll end it just like we've ended every other year. We haven't ended on a positive note in the three years. We need people who will live and die with Maryland football, and the only way to build that type of loyalty is to win a bowl game.

"This can wipe out a lot of bad bowl memories. If we win this thing, we've arrived. We're where we want to be."

A victory over the Volunteers (7-3-1) would not only make up for last year's 30-23 Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee, it would erase the only real blot on Atkinson's otherwise exceptional career.

In four years, Atkinson has accumulated four Atlantic Coast Conference records, six school records, and ranks third on the NCAA's all-time kick scoring list. His percentage of successful field goals has gone from 57 percent his freshman year, to 74 percent, to 80 percent to 85 percent this year.

Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said of Atkinson this week, "Everybody has sparks of brilliance. But Jess, perhaps, has been the most consistent performer in our program."

But Atkinson remembers the Aloha Bowl game in 1982, when he missed an extra point in Washington's 21-20 victory over Maryland.

"It was the low point of the time I've been here," Atkinson said. "It took me a whole week to get over that. But in looking back, I needed that. The best thing a kicker can do is learn to deal with the mental pressure . . . . I'd like for us to win and to kick three field goals.

"This is the most important game we've played under Coach Ross. And if we lose, people'll say, 'Maryland still can't win the big one.' If we win, on the other hand, they'll say, 'Hey, that Maryland beat Miami, Clemson, Virginia and then won its bowl game.' "

Atkinson's 15 consecutive field goals -- one short of another Maryland record -- are good for the Terrapins to have on their side.

Even better is the offense that has been producing 510 yards per game during the six-game winning streak. If that offense, led by senior quarterback Frank Reich, didn't lose anything during the four-week layoff, Tennessee will find itself hard pressed to stay in the game.

Ross and Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors have engaged in a good bit of typical mutual admiration this week. But Majors might not have missed the mark when he said, "Right now, I don't feel there's any team in the country that's as explosive, as potent as Maryland.

"They can line up jaw to jaw with Oklahoma or Brigham Young. We've got a better team than we had last year. And there's no doubt in my mind that when we play well, we can play with anybody, coast to coast. But Maryland may kick us in the teeth if our defense doesn't play great and our offense doesn't control the ball."

Tennessee's offense isn't too bad, either, especially with Tony Robinson at quarterback. In his first season as a starter, Robinson's 61.7 percent pass completion figure made him first-team all-Southeastern Conference. As usual, there are sprint/receivers at Tennessee.

And when asked the difference between this Tennessee team and last year's, Ross said, "With Robinson the running and passing threat that he is, they've made a quantum-type leap in that area."

Of course, the Volunteers still have Johnnie Jones, who led the SEC in rushing with 1,290 yards. "He makes the kind of cuts only one in 100 backs can make," Mesner said.

The last time a Maryland team faced guys named Jones in the Sun Bowl, Lam, Jam and Ham Jones combined for about 250 yards and led Texas to a 42-0 victory (in 1978).

At times, this team's defense looks capable of allowing that many points. But Mesner said, "At the start of the year, everybody was talking, 'Maryland's offense, Maryland's offense.' But the first couple of games it was all defense. Now, everybody's back to talking about, 'Maryland's offense.'

"Hey, we give our offense all the credit in the world. They got us here, there's no two ways about it. But we intend to make things easier on them Saturday."