Those who sell college football to the public -- coaches, media people, marketing directors -- like to talk about its unpredictability, hidden stars and unexpected great moments.

The game never justified its hype more than last year when a freshman running back, Herschel Walker, led an unnoticed team, Georgia, to an undefeated season and the national championship.

Walker and Georgia will not go unnoticed for a second this season. But looking at 1981 in the glare of the August sun, it seems likely three men will dominate the spotlight this fall.

Walker, Paul William (Bear) Bryant and Gerry Faust each will receive tremendous attention because each is trying to accomplish something unique.

The only fitting encore for Walker, who rushed for 1,786 yards in leading Georgia to a 12-0 record, would be winning the Heisman Trophy. It has been 30 years since a sophomore won the Heisman but Walker enters the season the favorite, having finished third in voting last year.

Bryant, 68, begins his 24th season at Alabama needing nine wins to pass Amos Alonzo Stagg as the all-time leader in coaching victories. Bryant starts the season with 306 and his team has not won fewer than nine games in a season since 1969.

And then there is Faust, 45, who became the Notre Dame coach last winter after Dan Devine resigned. Faust is probably in the best coaching situation in history.

Devine was unpopular at Notre Dame because he was perceived to be colorless and cold. Faust, who previously coached at Moeller High School in Cincinnati, is flamboyant, colorful and always turned on. They already love him in South Bend.

What's more, if people complained about Devine's personality, they never complained about his recruiting. He left the Irish loaded with talent. Faust could win a national title as a rookie coach.

The other national title contenders are familiar. In addition to Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia, the teams that could end up No. 1 on Jan. 2 are Michigan, Southern California, Oklahoma, Penn State, Nebraska, UCLA and Texas, the last three being long shots. If you want another dark horse, try Brigham Young with super passer Jim McMahon or Ohio State, if Coach Earle Bruce decides to let quarterback Art Schlichter pass more than he has been allowed to the past three seasons.

Michigan is the preseason favorite, largely because the Wolverines have eight of 11 starters back from a defense that did not give up a touchdown in its last 22 quarters last season. The big question is: can Coach Bo Schembechler replace quarterback John Wangler? Someone has to get the ball to wide receiver Anthony Carter.

If Michigan falters, it will be against Ohio State. But that game is in Ann Arbor and the Buckeyes, with only 10 seniors, are going to need miracles from Schlichter to beat this Michigan team. Still, they are the only Big Ten team with a chance.

Michigan's biggest test may come the second week of the season when it hosts Notre Dame. The Irish also have a strong defense led by linebacker Bob Crable, considered by many the best in the country. Their problem a year ago was at quarterback. If Blair Kiel or Scott Grooms can generate enough passing offense to take some pressure off tailback Phil Carter, the Irish can beat anyone.

Then there is Oklahoma. Last year was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Coach Barry Switzer. So, the Sooners went 10-2, won another Big Eight title and finished ranked third in the nation. Switzer doesn't rebuild, he reloads.

This season, the major loss is quarterback J.C. Watts. But Switzer's wishbone is deep in running backs and his defense, often unnoticed because the offense gains so many yards, is deep and experienced.

The Sooners should win the Big Eight again since Nebraska remains their main competition. Cornhusker Coach Tom Osborne has done all there is to do in eight years but can't seem to beat Switzer. Osborne's record against his arch-rival is 1-8 and should be 1-9 after this season because the game is in Norman.

In the East, Penn State should end Pittsburgh's two-year dominance of the Lambert Trophy. While Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill lost the heart (nine players) of the defense that keyed last year's 11-1 record and No. 2 final ranking, Joe Paterno retains most of the key players from last year's 10-2 Penn State team. The key men are sophomore quarterback Todd Blackledge and junior tailback Curt Warner. But don't count Pitt out. Quarterback Dan Marino can throw as well as anyone and the Panthers will never be out of a game.

The Pacific 10 Conference would just as soon forget 1980, the year of The Probations that left only five league schools eligible for the Rose Bowl. Washington earned its bid by beating USC but the Trojans clearly were not the same without their usual Pasadena incentive.

This year the incentive is back and Coach John Robinson also has tailback Marcus Allen and improving quarterback Scott Tinsley to go with an experienced defense. That should be enough to beat out UCLA, which was 9-2 a year ago in spite of probation and returns quarterback Tom Ramsey and tight end Irv Chatman.

The most wide open conference should be the Southeastern. Alabama, 10-2 a year ago, is the favorite because, as always, Bryant has so many excellent athletes. But quarterback Ken Coley is a question mark. Georgia must be taken seriously until someone finds a way to stop Walker; in addition the Bulldogs have a relatively weak schedule that does not include Alabama. Other contenders are Mississippi State, which upset Alabama and went 9-3 last season, and Florida, coming off an 8-4 year with almost everyone back including sophomore quarterback Wayne Peace, who embarrassed Maryland's secondary in the Tangerine Bowl.

The other conference with true balance is the Southwest, but it lacks a great team. Texas is considered the best by most because it has depth, size and experience on both lines. But defending champion Baylor, Arkansas, Houston and Southern Methodist (which is on probation) all have the talent to win the conference. None seems likely to be a national title contender.

As always, Brigham Young is the only team worth mentioning in the Western Athletic Conference and the Mid-American is a tossup between Miami of Ohio, Bowling Green and Toledo. Among the independents, Notre Dame, Miami (Fla.) and Florida State are the standouts. The Hurricanes and Seminoles, however, play brutal schedules, with Florida State's being the worst. Coming off a 21-3 record for the last two seasons, Bobby Bowden's team must play consecutive road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU. No one is that good.