Freshman tailback Herschel Walker of the University of Georgia is heading for a New Year's date with Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. And perhaps he's read what Gil Brandt, the director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, has to say about him:

"Walker and Earl Campbell are the only players I've seen who could have moved from high school directly into pro football."

That may be true, but chances are neither Walker nor Brandt will find out. The NCAA and the NFL have rules against a college athlete turning professional before his class graduates.

No one is implying that Brandt is trying to sign Walker or to persuade him to join the pro ranks. But his statement has raised a possibility that currently doesn't exist. Or does it?

"I'm just waiting for somebody to test it (the rule)," said one athletic director at an NCAA Division 1 school. "Practically speaking, I'm in favor of things staying the way they are. But the rule is probably unconstitutional. If a student-athlete can turn pro in the NBA before graduation, then I don't see why they can't do it in the NFL."

This statement is echoed by Dick Berthelsen, staff counsel for the NFL Players Associaton. "What we've got here is a classic confrontation of individual rights versus group rights. The NCAA acts as a farm system for the NFL and it doesn't cost them a dime. They get four years to computerize, scout and evaluate any college football player they choose -- for free."

The precedent in the NBA was set in the Spencer Haywood case in 1972. A Los Angeles federal judge ruled the NBA had no right to refuse employment to an athlete because he had not attended college for four years.

The so-called "hardship" provision then was instituted, and was much abused. As the years went by, the accepted definition of hardship became open to interpretation, allowing a student to turn professional because of a domestic or personal hardship, mostly financial. It was therefore assumed that while many NCAA basketball players suffer hardships, football players do not.

(The NBA no longer refers to such signings as hardship cases, preferring to call them "early entry.")

Berthelsen believes that colleges want to keep football intact because football pays the bills. "We understand that," he said. "But that doesn't mean a player should not be allowed freedom of choice."

Reid Parker, the administrative athletic director at Georgia, disagrees on practical grounds. "I'm very much in favor of the rule as it stands now. I wish the NBA could reinstate the old rule. I would not want to see Herschel or any other student-athlete turn professional until his four years are up or he graduates.The bottom line is that many of those NBA hardship cases wind up later with no pro career to speak of, and no degree."

Another vocal opponent of undergraduate professionals is Jay Moyer, the NFL legal counsel. "Our rules would not permit Walker to turn pro. The theoretical possibility exists, but no one has ever pressed a challenge yet."

Why keep the rule when an eventual challenge may prove successful? Said Moyer, "The rule benefits us, the colleges and the athletes. The Congress wouldn't like it. It would disrupt college football. If Herschel wanted to play, he'd have a very good reason. He may be an exception as Brandt described, but the average college football player is not physically or emotionally ready for the NFL. And they are not banging on our doors to get in."

Herschel seems amused by the legal controversy Brandt's comment created. "I'm having a lot of fun in college and I plan to pursue a degree in criminology. On the field, I'm still learning. I've got to learn to hit the line faster, to accelerate faster, follow my blocks and decide when to run around rather than over people."

Walker, who boasts a 3.7 gradepoint average (out of 4.0), wants to join the FBI one day, possibly as a lawyer. If his prelaw courses at Georgia, it is likely that he and his classmates have pondered the legalities of the current NFL prohibition on undergraduates playing professional football.

As one antitrust attorney said, "The NFL rule is vulnerable to legal attack." Herschel Walker isn't planning one. But Notre Dame on Jan. 1 is another story.