What could be one of the most significant meetings in the history of college athletics will convene -- and adjourn -- today in Atlanta when representatives of the 61 schools in the College Football Association vote on whether to approve a four-year contract with NBC-TV.

The contract, signed earlier this month by Charles M. Neinas, the CFA's executive director, calls for NBC to pay CFA members $180 million in 1982-85 for the rights to televise their games. The contract is in direct competition with a contract signed by the NCAA with CBS and ABC for the rights during those same four years.

The CFA consists of all the major-college football powers except for the 20 schools in the Big 10 and the Pac-10.

That is why this meeting is so important. If the CFA membership approves the contract -- the consensus yesterday was that it will pass by a slim margin -- it will be setting up a confrontation with the NCAA, which maintains it has exclusive rights to negotiate TV contracts for its member schools.

NCAA officials have said that if the CFA goes ahead with the NBC contract, CFA members will face penalties that could include probation, suspension or expulsion. Such a move by the NCAA could create chaos in college sport. The NCAA also has said it is considering taking the issue to court if the CFA approves the contract.

Since CFA schools also are among the major basketball powers, probation or suspension would make a mockery of the NCAA basketball tournament. It would eliminate the top schools from the major bowls and would take huge amounts of money out of NCAA coffers.

Today's meeting could be a first step toward confrontation. Both Neinas and the NCAA have been lobbying the schools all week. Yesterday Dick Dull, Maryland's athletic director, said he is leaning toward the CFA contract.

"The CFA contract would benefit Maryland more financially," he said. "But we haven't really reached a final decision on our position. I think the ACC will vote as a league, and how we will vote won't be decided until we get to Atlanta and sit down and discuss it."

The consensus among ACC athletic directors yesterday seemed to be that the league would vote in favor of the contract. The attraction to CFA members is simple: it represents more money than the NCAA ($1 million per school), and it guarantees two exposures during the four years. The NCAA contract has no such guarantee. It also limits the appearances per school to six every two years. The CFA contract would allow seven.

The CFA move also apparently is designed to, at the very least, give the organization more leverage within the NCAA. Since its inception five years ago, the CFA has had difficulty getting legislation through the NCAA because it is in the minority within the organization, where size of school makes no difference in voting power. Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Alabama have one vote each and so do Slippery Rock, Bethany and Prairie View.

"I don't think either organization wants a confrontation," said Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame's athletic director, who favors the CFA contract. "If we go ahead and do this the NCAA will have to renegotiate its contracts, but between the contract it gets and the 8 percent of our contract it will receive, I don't think it will lose TV revenue.

"Why create a huge split then? They need the CFA schools in the basketball tournament as much as we need them."

The CFA maintains that TV rights are the property of the individual schools and they have the right to choose their own bargaining agent.