The toddling United States Football League took another step forward yesterday with the announcement of three four-team divisions, a playoff format ending with the championship game July 10 and the date of its inaugural college draft.

The 12 teams will play an 18-game schedule, starting the weekend of March 6. Games Saturday and Monday nights will be carried by ESPN cable television and ABC will televise a game of the week each Sunday.

The Washington Federals will be in the Atlantic Division along with New Jersey, Philadelphia and Boston. The Central Division will consist of Chicago, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Birmingham. Phoenix, Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland will make up the Pacific Division.

The three division winners, plus a wild-card team, will qualify for the playoffs. The wild-card team will play the team with the best record, providing it isn't in the same division. The playoff winners then will meet for the championship at a site to be decided.

The USFL will hold its draft Jan. 4 and, for the first 24 rounds, each team will be restricted to selecting players from its five designated schools. The Federals, for example, will choose players from Clemson, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Richmond.

In the second phase, teams will be free to select anyone. The roster limits have been set at 40 players, with an additional 10-man development squad. There will be free movement all season between the active roster and the taxi squad.

"We won't touch anybody who hasn't completed his eligibility," Commissioner Chet Simmons said after yesterday's press conference at the Washington Marriott when asked about drafting players who haven't completed their education.

At the three-day meeting the owners reaffirmed USFL policy to offer within its standard player contract a scholarship-incentive program, providing funds for the player to complete his education in the fall.

"Our teams are willing to pay for the completion of any players' education. I don't know what else we can do," Simmons said when asked about the statement from Coach Jerry Stovall of LSU saying he was barring USFL scouts from his campus.

"We've changed the calendar a little bit, but we're only drafting players who have completed their eligibility. We have been in contact with a lot of college administrators and received their support because of our incentive clause."

Simmons said that he has not yet received all the facts and therefore hasn't ruled on Chicago's signing of Willie Young, a 26-year-old lineman with three years of eligibility at the University of Illinois. Young announced that he was quitting school because he couldn't support his wife and five children.

"We don't want to get the reputation of being pirates," Simmons said. "We're going to follow the same system as the National Football League in dealing with college players."

By drafting ahead of the NFL and concentrating on third-round prospects and lower, the USFL is hoping to lure a lot of players with the opportunity to play right away and also to play in the same region they attended college.

"Obviously, money will be a factor, too," Simmons said. "But we're not looking to get into crazy bidding wars. That would put us out of business like the World Football League."