The University of Georgia football team played a spring scrimmage today in a sun-soaked, near-empty stadium, half a year away from the rigors of the regular season. But before the players face their first game this fall, their university will have endured a more difficult test.

The university is immersed in a gritty scandal over preferential academic treatment of student athletes, a controversy that reached new heights this week when a special audit team concluded that university officials had routinely helped athletes who did not meet academic standards gain admission and progress through the institution.

Two officials who acknowledged giving special treatment to athletes said their actions were known by university President Fred C. Davison, according to the audit released by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. This is first time such preferential treatment of athletes -- a practice widely suspected of taking place across the county -- has been documented through an internal investigation.

Davison is one of two highly placed Georgians touched by the scandal. The audit reports that officials felt pressure from the athletic department -- directed by football coach Vince Dooley -- to make exceptions for athletes.

In a lengthy rebuttal to the report, Davison denied that he authorized or knew of the actions.

"Nothing -- nothing -- of this nature could be further from the truth," he said.

Dooley, watching the Georgia team scrimmage from the sidelines, denied applying pressure on behalf of his players.

The release of the audit Thursday shook the stately, oak-treed campus, already tense over charges leveled in the successful lawsuit by former English professor Jan Kemp. In February, a jury awarded $2.6 million to Kemp, who had argued that she had been dismissed for complaining about the special treatment given to athletes. The state is appealing the case.

In the meantime, the institution pushes toward summer break, students hunch over textbooks in the library and football players prepare for fall. But the campus is tinged with bitterness over what many see as an unfair disgrace.

"There's a real feeling we've been unjustly branded," said David Anderson, dean of the university's college of veterinary medicine. "A lot of the things being called abuses here exist all over the country . . . . I can't believe we have a quality of athlete different from anywhere else."

Anderson's comments echoed a common refrain across the spacious grounds -- that the University of Georgia is not unique in a country where college sports are imbued with great importance, an athletic chauvinism that overpowers academics.

"All the schools do it, we just happen to get caught," said senior Kevin Barrows.

Despite arguments that such problems are commonplace, there is a recognition that the university faces a long battle that will be watched closely by college officials nationwide. Davison is probably the first university president to be so closely associated with such a scandal.

Davison submitted his resignation last month, saying that he was insulted by the regents' decision to delay renewing his contract pending the audit results. He is to present his case to the regents at a meeting in Atlanta Monday and the board is expected to consider his resignation later in the week.

Aside from the fate of the president, there is other damage to assess on campus.

"I look forward to the morning when I get up and look at the morning paper and not be headlines," said Sherrie Nist, acting associate director of the Developmental Studies Program at the center of the controversy. "Let's get this behind us."

The Developmental Studies Program enrolls about 300 students who are ineligible because of academic weakness for the university's regular course of study. Up to 20 percent of the students are athletes, Nist said.

The audit, in reviewing about 1,000 students admitted to the program from 1981 to 1984, found a pattern of abuse. The report disclosed that academically deficient students were admitted, advanced and "administratively exited" so they could move into regular courses, often in violation of "equity in the application" of university standards.

In one case, the audit said, a student was promoted twice to higher level courses despite failures in previous courses and was dismissed from the program but readmitted two weeks later in violation of policy. The student -- not identified in the report -- also was allowed to move on to regular courses in English by passing a lower level remedial course after failing a higher level course.

In another case, an instructor wrote on an evaluation form that a student, who had the capabilities of a fourth or fifth grader, told the instructor "not to worry about his performance because he was an athlete and would not be in any danger of dismissal," the audit states. The student was dismissed in March 1982 but readmitted days later, then granted additional time to complete the Developmental Studies requirements, according to the report.

The audit states that neither Virginia Trotter, university vice president for academic affairs, nor Leroy Ervin, director of the Developmental Studies Program, "denied their responsibility for decisions that resulted in the preferential treatment for athletes and selected students . . . . "

Trotter and Ervin could not be reached for comment.

The two officials told auditors that on several occasions since 1980 "they attempted to show the president that many athletes were too weak to attend the university." On one occasion, according to the audit, Davison allegedly responded that failure to allow certain athletes to move out of the remedial courses into regular course work -- normally required within four quarters -- would place the university in a noncompetitive position in football.

"What do you want us to do? Play high school football?" Davison allegedly said, according to the audit.

The audit also reported that Trotter and Ervin made exceptions to the university policy by moving ineligible students into regular course work "allegedly because of pressure from the athletic department." The athletic department funded a developmental studies "laboratory" subsequently used "as a route for an athlete to bypass the established academic standards of the approved developmental studies program," the audit reported.

Coach Dooley today called the controversy a "very unfortunate, tragic series of events" and acknowledged that "maybe we should have been more selective with some of the student athletes that we took." But Dooley, who led the Bulldogs to a 7-3-2 season last year, said he was unaware of any violations.

Claude Felton, sports information director, said the charges have hurt recruiting efforts by the university's athletic program. But he added, "The athletes have certainly bound together . . . . Everyone seems to be holding up pretty well."

Dooley and Davison have their critics, but they also have loyal supporters on campus and among the alumni, despite the turmoil that began with Kemp's federal lawsuit.

"I think he has a lot of integrity," alumnus Steven Weinstein said of Dooley. Weinstein, who graduated in 1964 and is active in alumni fund-raising, added his vote of confidence in Davison, who has headed the institution for nearly two decades: "The university has come a long way with him. I don't think it would be where it is today."

But the fate of Davison's job and any changes that may result from the investigation rest largely with the 15-member Board of Regents, whose meetings this week are likely to draw a standing-room-only audience.

"I was surprised; I didn't think that Dr. Davison was knowledgeable about any of it," said Edgar Rhodes, a businessman and two-year member of the board. "I think a lot of the regents were surprised at what they learned."

Dooley seemed philosophical today about his future. "My job is threatened every year," he said, but added that he is optimistic about the program. "I'm sure we'll have some backlashes for a while . . . but it will help, we'll be better."

Senior Randy Gonano, headed for a swimming pool, said he is angry that Davison's job has been jeopardized by events that Gonano thinks have been blown out of proportion. Of the athletes, he said: "They use the university, and the university uses them."

But Mary LaFleur, a freshman honors student who was spending her Saturday studying in the student center, said, "They did it to themselves," referring to university officials named in the investigation. "Now they're all pointing the finger at each other . . . . There'll be reforms, but sooner or later they will lapse back in their old habits -- 'We're going to get our players however we can.' "