Whenever two or more Atlantic Coast Conference football coaches gather weeks before the season begins, it seems they are bound to talk of one thing: the ACC's strength as a football conference. With 4 1/2 weeks to go before the first conference teams open their seasons, the coaches play for the ACC team now, boosting the league instead of their own teams.

Five of the league's eight head coaches were in Washington yesterday for an ACC football kickoff luncheon, and the group -- perhaps a bit defensive over the ACC's longstanding reputation as a basketball conference -- used the occasion to speak up for its football prowess.

"Top to bottom, the ACC is one of the top leagues in the country," said Maryland Coach Bobby Ross. "People aren't conscious of how good the ACC is, football-wise."

"A lot of times the ACC doesn't get credit," North Carolina Coach Dick Crum said. "I feel very confident about how we compete around the country."

This year, the ACC can point to Maryland as an example of the league's strength. Maryland went 9-3 last year, beating Tennessee in the Sun Bowl. Sport magazine picked the Terrapins No. 1 in its preseason rankings this year.

Oftentimes, No. 1 preseason picks fizzle early, but Ross will have nothing to do with superstition.

"I don't believe in a jinx," he said. "I think you win games with blocking, tackles and execution. No. 1 doesn't really matter. In the top 20, there's only 2 percent difference (among teams)."

Maryland opens with a difficult four-game stretch against nonconference opponents Penn State, Boston College, West Virginia and Michigan.

"I told (Michigan Coach) Bo (Schembechler) he's not going to be anywhere near as good as Maryland," North Carolina State Coach Tom Reed said. "I told him to buckle up because they'd have to play on emotion to win."

The coaches have different opinions on how high preseason rankings could affect Maryland.

"If it's an incentive, it will be good," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "If they start worrying and feeling the pressure, then it's going to hurt them. They're not used to this."

"I think it's good pressure," said Bill Curry, coach at Georgia Tech. "The players might say, 'Someone thinks we're No. 1, let's be No. 1.' "

"Who knows who'll be No. 1?" Welsh said. "That's so subjective. But Maryland is one of the top five teams in the country."

Perhaps the best argument for the strength of the ACC, other than Maryland's high ranking, is that Virginia and Georgia Tech, schools that had had little football success in recent years, had good seasons last year and are expected to finish near the top of the league.

Virginia had its most successful season in more than 30 years last year, going 8-2-2 with a second-place ACC finish and a Peach Bowl victory -- the school's first-ever bowl appearance. In three years under Welsh, the Cavaliers' annual victory total has gone from two to six to eight. But Welsh said the team might be dwelling on last year's success too much.

"I know one thing," he said. "We've talked about the Peach Bowl too much. We're still talking about it, and we've got to play a game in four weeks."

At Georgia Tech, where the athletic program has been reemerging since the school joined the ACC, Curry is ready for the football team to enjoy more success.

Because of scheduling conflicts, Georgia Tech will not play Maryland until 1987. "That's convenient since Maryland's so good right now," Curry said.