It has gotten to the point where scores of influential people are insisting on a playoff to determine the national collegiate football champion. The idea has everything in its favor except for one thought, the one thought that ought to - but probably will not - keep it from happening: it is to in the best interest of the athletes.

A cynic might begin to chuckle here and rightly wonder is the nation's semi-amateurs ever did anything that put the best interests of the athletes ahead of a dollar sign. But this would be the final blatent act - and how anyone can advocate a football playoff and still call himself an educator is a mystery here - because it would have Notre Dame playing longer than the Minnesota Vikings.

This year it would have been Notre Dame, Alabama, Arkansas, Penn State, Texas and a few others dragging the collegiate season past the Super Bowl. Not at all, the advocates shout. Penn State's Joe Paterno even has a system that would involve no more than two playoff games, with the national champion tied in a tidy No. 1 bow the same weekend as the NFL championship.

No way, Joe. Not this season - and probably not as long as the factories continue to give the same number of football scholarships. Too many schools are too equal for any fair system to involve fewer than eight teams - and fair is supposed to be what this playoff drive is all about.

Or would Paterno have sat quietly by and allowed four-team playoff to take place this season without Penn State? There were five schools with one defeat after the bowls - and one or two more with a reason to demand a playoff berth.

So there must be at least three games. And none of them can start until at least a week after the bowl games, because those affairs are too lucrative and too worthwhile to be undercut by any sort of playoff system. In fact, the bowls would have to serve as a playoff qualifier. Hardly anyone suggests otherwise.

The football player's time away from the classroom - or at least the time he can devote to studies and social life - already has been cut drastically. In the '70s, we have seen what amounts to the addition of two games on what previously was a 10-game base.

An 11th regular-season game was approved for the 1970 season - and so many bowl games have evolved since that a school almost has to work to avoid some sort of post-season competition. Two 7-4 teams.Maryland and Minnesota, got the Hall of Fame Bowl started last December - and much of the sporting world nodded its approval.

An educator can support the present system with few guilt pangs, because it mostly involves one semester and a small spillover into the second. The "student-athlete" can schedule his relatively simple courses during the season and catch up later.

In truth, academically minded players at Penn State were pleased by television muscling a switch in the Pitt game the last two seasons, because the original date coincided with final exams for the fall term.

Any fair playoff system would seriously interrupt the studies of players for nearly two terms, not to mention the added distractions it would cause throughout student bodies who hardly need another excuse to avoid the books.

Right about now playoff pushers go into their prevent defense, the one that always begins with "every other collegiate sport has a playoff system. Baseball, lacrosse, golf and tennis. And basketball starts practice Oct. 15 and doesn't end its post-season tournament this year until March 27. That's 5 1/2 months."

Wonderful logic there. Because the basketball season is too long, we ought to make the football season too long.

With their contracts with assorted conferences, the bowls presently do not allow any sort of convenient matchup that would produce the four clearly superior teams. The Big Eight champion must play in the Orange Bowl, the Pac-10 and Big 10 must play in the Rose Bowl, the Southeastern Conference champ must play in the Sugar Bowl and the Southwest Conference champ must play in the Cotton Bowl.

And any "blue ribbon" panel of experts chosen to whittle the postbowl contenders to four would only be slightly less unfair than the wire-service polls that decide the national champion each year.

The final argument for a playoff always seems to be "let's take a poll of the players. Since they're the ones who would have to play in the games, let's find out whether they'd like to paly them."

And why not also poll prisoners to see if they'd like lighter sentences - and then allow the vote to determine terms? As one who practiced nearly every known device to avoid school work, and with out benefit of any sporting distractions, I can imagine no major-college player ever voting against that sort of challenge.

There is no argument here that a playoff would be the fairest way to determine a national champion, or that it would be of intense interest throughout the country, or that is would be a positive experience for the players.

But at too great a cost, in terms of what colleges and collegiate athletics are supposed to be about. And why not stop this obsession with No. 1 somewhere? So what if the present system is imperfect?

At the moment, msot colleges begin fall practice a week or so after most NFL teams begin training camp. Any honest playoff format might well have the colleges ending their playoffs the week after the Super Bowl, or just in time for a gasp or two before spring practice starts.

What we have this year - now - are thousands of people, from Arkansas through Texas through the Pennsylvania and Alabama holding their heads high about their teams. And Notre Dame heads are just a wee bit higher. The bowls give a few dozen teams of a chance to end their season with a victory - and all the participants the chance for a holiday reward. That is enough.