First there was Michigan. Ranked No. 1 by everyone before the season began. Easy schedule, the experts said. The Wolverines opened at Wisconsin, a team they had not lost to in 19 years.

Wisconsin 21, Michigan 14.

Second was Notre Dame. The era of Faust roared in with an impressive 27-9 victory over LSU. The Irish replaced Michigan as No. 1. Then they went to Ann Arbor.

Michigan 25, Notre Dame 7.

Third was Southern California. When the Irish went down, the Trojans went up. They had been there before and knew how to handle the situation. They came from behind to beat No. 2 Oklahoma. Two weeks later, they had a walkover at home against Arizona.

Arizona 13, USC 10.

The same day, Texas humiliated Oklahoma, 34-14, on national television. The Longhorns were big, strong and mobile. And now No. 1. Then it was on to Arkansas, a team they had beaten 12 of the last 14 times.

Arkansas 42, Texas 11.

Six weeks of college football, and today Penn State or Pittsburgh will become the fifth team to be ranked first in the polls. Their coaches, Joe Paterno and Jackie Sherrill, have to be worried.

"Not worried," Sherrill said. "It's motivation for the kids, that's what's good about having the rankings. But of course, motivation works both ways. When you're No. 1, everyone is motivated to knock you off."

In past years being motivated to beat No. 1 usually was not enough. That has changed. Two weeks ago, six of the top 20 teams were beaten and a seventh was tied.

Coaches say there are three major reasons for the spate of upsets:

* The NCAA's 30-95 rule, passed in 1975, that is designed to reduce costs by limiting schools to 30 scholarships a year and a total of 95 for football players.

* The NCAA's 2.0 grade point rule that reduced the minimum academic requirements for athletes. Until 1975 an athlete had to "predict" a 1.6 college grade point average to qualify for a scholarship. Now, a 2.0 average in high school is enough. "Let's face it," said University of Georgia President Fred Davison, "in a lot of cases, that means you stayed out of jail for four years." The rule means more good athletes qualify for scholarships.

* More sophisticated coaching at the high school level and players taking up the game at a younger age; the players are better prepared when they enter college.

The upset trend has been building. Last year, Georgia was the fifth team to be No. 1. It got there the week after No. 1 Notre Dame was tied by a Georgia Tech team that finished 1-9-1 and No. 2 UCLA lost.

"The difference today from 10 years ago is remarkable," Texas Coach Fred Akers said. "Back then, there were teams on the schedule you beat just by showing up. Now, there isn't a team we play that doesn't have at least some quality athletes. That means they are capable of pulling an upset."

"There are going to be at least three games every year -- if you're lucky, only three -- where you don't play well," said Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz. "Once, you could just overwhelm teams . . . when you had a day like that. Not anymore."

Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach, lost the No. 1 spot by losing to Wisconsin, knocked off Notre Dame the next week, climbed back to No. 5 last week, and lost to Iowa.

"There was a time when you were such a big favorite that it was hard to get enjoyment out of some of your wins," Schembechler said. "Now, you never know. We were ecstatic after (beating) Michigan State and Indiana."

"With the 30-95 rule you can't stockpile players like they once did in college football," said Notre Dame's Gerry Faust, who is 2-3 as a rookie coach. "Kids come into college now and a lot of them are capable of playing right away and contributing. That means schools that have playing time available will get some good players. It won't just be the powers."

Because of the equalization in talent, it is almost impossible to schedule tough games back-to-back and survive. Sunday, when he gathered his players after beating Texas, the first thing Holtz did was sing, "The Party's Over," a reminder that the Razorbacks now face Houston.

Paterno has put together a brutal schedule for Penn State this year, one that includes Alabama, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh consecutively. Most coaches would call that suicidal. Paterno calls it fun.

"With the equalization in talent, obviously it's tough to win all your games," Paterno said. "But the kids want tough games, the fans do. too. I'd rather play a great schedule and lose a couple of games than an easy one and go undefeated. There's got to be more to college football than being ranked No. 1."

For the last 20 years, the No. 1 ranking mostly has been the exclusive property of college football's "perennial nine": Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Southern California, Alabama and Penn State. In 1976, Pittsburgh won the championship. In 1980, Georgia won. Teams such as Florida's Miami, Mississippi State, Florida State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Iowa State now appear in the polls.

The perennial nine still are a major factor in college football, still dominant teams. But in 1975 they had a record of 88-17-3 (.838 percentage). This year they are 32-14-2 (.696). Only Penn State is unbeaten.

The new balance is one of the reasons the powers want the 30-95 rule abolished. They complain that 95 scholarships is not enough.

"Of course they feel that way because the 95 rule means they don't get all the athletes," said Virginia Coach Dick Bestwick. "In the old days, the powerhouse teams' third string was better than most first strings. Now, when a team loses a first-line player, it actually hurts them. They don't like it."

Sherrill, at Pitt, favors a compromise. "Set an annual limit, say 25 scholarships a year, but don't have a ceiling of 95," he said. "The way it is now schools like ours where kids stay in school are punished because there are years we only sign 22 or 23. Other schools sign 30 every year."

Some schools, particularly in the Big Eight, do not renew scholarships if they do feel an athlete can not contribute. Since scholarships are renewable annually, that is legal. But other schools keep their players on campus whether they pan out or not. In 1980, 27 of the 30 players recruited in 1977 still were at Pitt.

"As long as you have scholarship limits, there are going to be players you don't get who will come back and play against you," Faust said. "We may see 200 good players in a year and, if we're lucky, we'll sign one-tenth of them."

The coaches reject the notion that to be No. 1 is to be jinxed.

"They've just been picking the wrong team No. 1," Holtz said. "Texas was No. 1 two weeks ago but they weren't No. 1 Saturday. They'll just have to keep trying until they get it right."