With an inaugural college draft that included most of the nation's top-rated players, the United States Football League showed itself willing yesterday to enter into a bidding war with the National Football League.

With the first pick overall, the Los Angeles Express made University of Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino the USFL's first draftee. Selecting fourth in the opening round, the Washington Federals picked Southern Methodist University tailback Craig James.

But drafting big-name players is one thing, signing them to contracts another. Players who sign on for the USFL's first season, beginning in early March, will, in effect, pass up the NFL's April draft. Players like Marino and James also will have to decide, and decide quickly, whether they want to leave college before graduating in order to attend the new league's February training camps.

"If the feeling is right, if the money is right, if the city is right, if all those factors are there, we can get them to sign," said Federals General Manager Dick Myers.

"No matter what, we have a very good chance of signing James," said Federals President James Gould. "The philosophy of this league is to build stars and we have the money to do it."

From his home in Houston, James said he was coming to Washington today to speak with Federals owner Berl Bernhard and Coach Ray Jauch. According to team sources, the Federals selected James ahead of some other even more highly touted players, including SMU teammate Eric Dickerson, because they felt James is more interested in the USFL.

"Coming to the USFL would be like when I chose to go to SMU," said James. "When I went to SMU it wasn't as established as it is now as a big-time thing."

Marino, at a press conference in Los Angeles, declined to commit himself to either league. "Right now I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to have to find out who might draft me in the NFL," said Marino.

In 1960, the Los Angeles Rams made LSU running back Billy Cannon the NFL's top pick overall. But in the first year of its existence, the American Football League made its presence known--the Houston Oilers signed Cannon, and he became the new league's signal to the NFL that a bidding war was on. Five years later, the New York Jets signed Joe Namath and the war intensified.

USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons obviously is hoping to repeat the AFL's success. "Coming out of this draft, I think you'll see some signings people don't expect," said Simmons at the USFL's draft headquarters in New York.

The Federals also announced yesterday the signing of former Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons quarterback Kim McQuilken.

Before the start of the open draft, the USFL released the results of its territorial draft, in which each of the 12 franchises was allowed to "protect" 26 players from five colleges in its area. The major territorial selections included Stanford quarterback John Elway (by the Oakland Invaders), Nebraska center Dave Rimington (by the Boston Breakers), running backs Curt Warner of Penn State and Kelvin Bryant of North Carolina (by the Philadelphia Stars) and Michigan wide receiver Anthony Carter (by the Michigan Panthers).

Of the Federals' 26 protected players, Myers rated Clemson's all-America defensive back Terry Kinard the best prospect.