Even before the first major upset, this college football season is full of surprises. Consider:

Alabama and Ohio State, both practitioners of early season easy scheduling, play blockbuster games in the first three weeks. Alabama going to Nebraska and Ohio State hosting Oklahoma.

The leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy is a defensive lineman, Notre Dame's Ross Browner. No defender or interior lineman has ever won this most prestigious of college awards.

Joe Paterno, who once plugged for more publicity and higher ratings for Penn State, says his current team is the most overrated in the country.

Texas is not favored to win the Southwest Conference title. Instead, the Longhorns are considered no better than fourth-best in the league.

There are no rumors about Dan Devine beign fired at Notre Dame.

That last point is especially significant considering that Devine seemed on his way out of South Bend midway through his first season with the Irish. Now, after two controversial years, his club is a shaky favorite to bring another national championship to the Golden Dome.

Notre Dame's position would be a lot stronger if Al Hunter, the first player in the school's history to run for 1,000 yards in a season, hadn't been booted off the team for violating school rules. Devine doesn't have a runner of Hunter's caliber sitting on the bench, so he will have to console himself with the 18 starters he has returning, including all 11 on defenses.

That defense has everything a coach dreams of: speed, depth, strength and tradition. It should be enough to allow the Irish to hang on until Devine straightens out his offense, which has been hurt by academic and disciplinary losses.

If he can find a good quarterback, Devine's only worry will be avoiding an upset at Pittsburgh Sept. 10. A victory against the Panthers on national television also would benefit Browner, last year's Outland Trophy winner as the nation's best lineman.

Waiting for Notre Dame to falter will be Michigan, Oklahoma. Ohio State and Texas A & M. All have problems, but all have the potential to finish undefeated.

Michigan will miss running back Rob Lytle, but the Wolverines' offense, best in the country most of last year, has back all the line plus quarterback Rick Leach and fullback Russell Davis. Bo Schembechler has to patch up the defense, but that's the type of handiwork he relishes.

Colorado can be blamed if Ohio State runs up the score on folks this season. The Buffs were beating up Woody Hayes' boys in the Orange Bowl until Hayes went to his speed backfield of quarterback Rod Gerald and runners Jeff Logan and Ron Springs. Result: a 27-10 victory for Ohio State and optimism for this year Hayes has some defensive holes, which he has to solve before meeting Oklahoma Sept. 24, but he will not have to worry about middle guard Aaron Brown, one of the nation's quality athletes.

Oklahoma, led by quarterback Thomas Lott, last year's late-season sensation, also has many veterans (18 starters back) and much speed. Whether the Sooner defense is big enough to stand up against Ohio State in Columbus is coach Barry Switzer's biggest concern.

Usually the only similarity between Ohio State and Oklahoma is that both teams use footballs. Not this year.

Texas A & M probably deserves the national title if it wins the SWC. The league will be that tough this year, what with Texas Tech and Houston also top 10 hopefuls. A & M gets the nod here on the basis of its talented backfield, featuring fullback George Woodard, and the defensive coaching skills of Emory Bellard.

But Tech lost only three starters from last season's SWC co-champions and Houston, which shared the title, was just starting to mature when it raced past Maryland in the Cotton Bowl.

Both teams have outstanding quarterbacks, Tech with Rodney Allison and Houston with Danny Davis. What they also are seeking is consistency, something Texas A & M lacked last year during key games.

The best in the West has a familiar ring: UCLA and USC, not necessarily in that order. However, Washington could disrupt this private party. USC has to rebuild its defense while relying on sophomore Charles White to replace Ricky Bell at tailback. UCLA had the best recruiting year in the country, but its freshmen may be too young to help this season.

Penn State played so many freshmen last year that Paterno served pablum at the training table. If one of his horde of tailbacks - all Tom Matte lookalikes - can develop into a gamebreaker, the Nittany Lions could replace Pitt as the best in the East.

Pitt, however, won't be a pushover, even without Tony Dorsett. Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh and some key defensive veterans are good enough to finish in the top 10 - and perhaps challenge for No. 1 if they can upset Notre Dame. The darkhorse in the East is West Virginia, which needs a big year from freshman running back Robert Alexander.

Maryland complained last year about lack of national recognition and then promptly created a major credibility gap by losing, to Houston. The Terrapins have all the ingredients for another 11-0 regular season if Jerry Claiborne can rebuild the offense line, and get by Penn State Sept. 24. It aslo would help if Steve Atkins remains healthy all season.

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne was so upset with his team's 8-3-1 record last year that he reorganized his defensive coaching staff. Better for him if he finds a quarterback and a way to beat Oklahoma, something he hasn't done in five years.

After years of scheduling the likes of Southern Mississippi for an early warmup. Bear Bryant finally has bowed to critics. Besides Nebraska, Alabama also will travel to USC. Within the Southeastern Conference, the Tide should regain the title after losing out to Georgia last year.

If the Tide should recede, Florida, perennially the most overrated team in the nation, finally could take an SEC crowm. Pro scouts rave about their ability to perform under pressure.

In other conference races. Appalachian State is the favorite in the Southern. Western Michigan in the Mid-American. South Carolina State in the Mid-Eastern. Grambling in the Southwestern. BYU in the Western Athletic, San Jose State in the Pacific Coast and Montana State in the Big Sky.

In the race for the Heisman Trophy contenders other than Browner include Oklahoma State back Terry Miller. Brigham Young quarterback Gifford Neilsen, Michigan's Leach. A & M's Woodard. Maryland's Mark Manges and Pittsburgh's Cavanaugh.

No one from the Ivy League will be in the Heisman race, nor in the battle for the national championship. But in the league where grades count more than yards gained, there still is a favorite for the conference title: Yale. Just don't count out Penn.