With a little bit of help from Howard Cosell's favorite TV network, ABC. Notre Dame meets Pittsburgh Saturday to begin what Irish partisans hope is a glorious trek to the unofficial national football college championship.

This game was not supposed to take place until later this month, but ABC got into the schedule-rearranging business and, presto, came up with this blockbuster to get its 1977 college season off to a lusty beginning (WJLA-TV-7, 3:50 p.m.)

You can see the minds of the TV people working when they set up this one.First you take Pitt, the defending national titlist, playing without Tony Dorsett for the first time in four years, then toss in Notre Dame, UPI's preseason choice to replace Pitt at the top of the rankings.

Add such goodies as the controversial suspension of Notre Dame running back Al Hunter and the constant pressure on Irish coach Dan Devine to win over doubting fans and there is enough at stake to give even the Panther mascot goosebumps.

Those hard-to-please Irish fans have been disappointed that the team has lost six games in Devine's first two years to South Bend, Ind. Knowing that some pro scouts think Notre Dame would make a suitable NFL entry, those same partisans will become restless with one loss this season.

But last season, an equally talented Irish squad, which compiled a 9-3 record, lacked the sparkle and authority that characterizes a dominating team. The chances of becoming the first Notre Dame team to win a national title since 1973 appears to depend heavily on how well the returning 18 starters from 1976 have increased their enthusiasm for the game.

It would also help the Irish if some quarterback - one of a handful - would start playing like a young Paul Hornung. Devine will start junior Rusty Lisch Saturday but might turn to freshman whiz Tim Koegel before the season is over.

Otherwise Notre Dame has a stockpile of talent, especially on defense, where 13 players have been starters sometime during their college careers.

The best of those defenders is end Ross Browner, with the superman build and running-back quickness. What Browner doesn't stop usually is handled by fellow end Willie Fry, another potential first-round pro draft pick. Devine can pick from any of four quality tackles to beef up the middle.

Pitt was hardly held in check by the Notre Dame defense the last two years. Dorsett gained more yards against the Irish than any previous enemy runner. It was Pitt's 31-10 win over Notre Dame in South Bend last season that set up the Panthers' national title drive. It also put added pressure on Devine, who has never exhibited the tact or take-charge image of his predecessor, Ara Parseghian.

With Dorsett now a Dallas cowboy in the NFL and coach Johnny Majors back home at the University of Tennessee, new Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill, a former Majors assistant, is getting a taste of what pressure is all about.

Sherrill has 11 starters returning. The veterans include fine passing quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, center Tom Brzoza, receivers Gordon Jones, Randy Reutershan and Willie Taylor, safety Bob Jury and defensive tackle Randy Holloway, a 6-foot-6, 238-pound standout whom Pitt believes is as good as Browner. Former Eastern High star Al Chesley from Washington, D.C., will start a linebacker.

Cavanaugh probably will have to put the ball up a lot. The offensive line is not as strong as last year and the running back situation is muddled. Sophomore Larry Sims gets the nod to replace Dorsett, but Sherrill is expected to use a half-dozen runners before the day is over.

At some point, he probably will be tempted to turn to Dorsett, who is expected to attend the game. But Dorsett has done all he can for Pitt, including helping the athletic department make enough money last year to buy an electronic scoreboard and install artificial turf at Pitt Stadium.

Hunter's absence could hurt Notre Dame almost as much. Devine would like to practice ball control until Lisch - or somebody - develops into a passer. But without Hunter, the first 1,000-yard single-season rusher in Irish history, he is limited to two outstanding backs, Vagas Ferguson and Jerome Heavens, the latter coming off knee surgery. Beyond them, Devine will have to turn to four leaf clovers and shamrocks.

Whether Hunter should be playing Saturday, instead of trying to make the Seattle Seahawks is still a hotly debated topic within Irish ranks.

"Let's put it this way," said one Irish official. "A lot of college players have done a lot worse and not been kicked off the team. But Notre Dame is highly conscious of its role in college football and they can't put up with rule violators."

Hunter's case is complex and his refusal to talk publicly about it has further complicated matters. He was accused of being in a women's dormitory after curfew last spring. One school judicial hearing committee found him innocent, but the dean of students appealed the decision and a second committee found him guilty.

Hunter, who was on probation from an earlier case (he and five other players were suspended two years ago volving a woman), was suspended for the fall semester.

"Right away you have to wonder about a system that allows the accuser to appeal a case once the accused has been found innocent," said Tom Gatewood, former Notre Dame All-America and a close friend of many of the current Irish players. "I know that some of the black players on the team were considering some form of protest, maybe a boycott when preseason practice opened.

"But Al stopped communicating with everyone. He's a friend of mine and I haven't been able to talk to him for a month. You have to wonder what happened to him."

With the threat of a boycott over, Notre Dame had a routine preseason practice. Everyone is healthy. The only question is whether Hunter's absence will affect their quest for the national title.