In rank of importance in the state of Texas, it is fair to say that college football gives way only to money, oil and national defense, and there are many in the Southwest Conference who would tell you those all amount to the same thing anyhow.

The state's natural order has received a severe shock in the last few months: TCU declared seven players ineligible for accepting money from boosters; Southern Methodist University was penalized by the NCAA for 36 infractions; and Texas A&M became the subject of an NCAA investigation into still more allegedly improper recruiting. There also have been reports of NCAA investigations at Texas and Texas Tech, Baylor's basketball program is the subject of a probe and Houston basketball is under a cloud because of the recruitment of Tito Horford.

Once-righteous TCU, a school that never has been placed under NCAA sanctions, revealed that almost one-third of its team had at one time received payments from a slush fund set up by boosters, allegedly with the knowledge of former coach F.A. Dry, and that some payments still were going on.

The current coach, Jim Wacker, made the revelations himself and among the suspended players was all-America Kenneth Davis. Texas oilman Dick Lowe, a TCU booster, admitted helping establish the fund and released a stunning letter outlining details of the fund, to which he says 50-60 boosters contributed and from which as many as 29 players received monthly payments in 1980 and beyond.

TCU's admissions came on the heels of the NCAA's decision to put Southern Methodist on three-year probation and strip it of scholarships for a wide range of football violations, but primarily the reported admission by offensive lineman Sean Stopperich that a booster had given him $11,000 in 1984.

It was all the more outrageous then when Tommy Shehan, who plays on TCU's offensive line, saw the irony of the Horned Frogs' game against SMU here Saturday and joked in a television interview, "Let's get these cheaters on the field and see what's behind all this." SMU won, 56-21.

The integrity of the SWC admittedly has suffered, but whether it is any worse than any other league is uncertain. That uncertainty may have larger implications nationwide.

According to Lowe, the "normal" going rate for a blue-chip athlete out of high school is $10,000 to $20,000, a car and $1,000 a month. Lowe should know: his oil company suffered a series of business setbacks and he found it increasingly difficult to support recruiting.

"This story is going to have a phenomenal impact on college football before it's over," said Davis, who has admitted Lowe gave him car payments and monthly cash and says other schools, as well, had offered money. "It's already starting to."

The only difference between the Southwest and other leagues may be geography. Of the nine SWC member schools, eight are in the same state and recruit from the same pool of talent. That fact has led to bitter recruiting wars over the years, and more recently to infighting that may be in part responsible for the investigations at TCU and SMU.

"I don't think the Southwest is any worse than anybody else," TCU Athletic Director Frank Windegger said. "What happens is, we're so competitive with so many similar schools, and it's so concentrated, that everything gets magnified. We're being maligned and besieged right now, but we're no worse."

There has been speculation that SMU turned over information during its two-year investigation by the NCAA that may lead to other investigations. The Mustangs are vocal about their feeling that they have been singled out, perhaps unfairly, by the NCAA and possibly other equally guilty SWC schools. But they have denied accusations that they deliberately and vengefully have turned in other schools.

Said running back Reggie Dupard: "For some reason you get the feeling that they (the NCAA) wanted us. You check any program as thoroughly as they did ours, you're going to find something. Some rules will be broken."

An SMU athletic department spokesman was more blunt: "It's okay for them (other schools) to turn us in, but it's not okay for us to turn information over? How else does the NCAA begin an investigation if not through another school? It doesn't just wake up in the morning and say it's going to investigate SMU today."

"There has been a gentleman's agreement," said Lowe. "Schools were sitting on information about other schools. It's called honor among thieves."

Although the Horned Frogs cannot accuse anybody of blowing the whistle on them, Wacker, who has not been implicated, feels that some parties were not displeased to see TCU's troubles. He says the scandal at TCU began Sept. 19 after a newspaper report that the Horned Frogs and three other teams had been named by a mysterious party as subjects of NCAA investigations. Wacker, aware of some previous rules violations under Dry, spoke emotionally at a team meeting, urging anyone accepting money from boosters to admit it. One player, reportedly Davis, came forward. Lowe, confronted by Wacker, immediately admitted providing money. Wacker turned his team in to the NCAA.

A noted crusader against recruiting violations since he took over at TCU in 1982, he recognizes that his zealousness may have made him unpopular in some quarters of the conference and could lead to charges of hypocrisy.

"We built a glass house," he said. "We knew we were going to be vulnerable when we came in here and said we were going to run a clean program. But I am surprised at how bitter and vindictive some people have been. A lot of people are very threatened by what we have done."

What TCU has done puts the NCAA in a peculiar position. By policing itself, TCU has carried out an ideal that the governing body has been pleading for: self-disclosure. How the NCAA reacts remains to be seen. It can set a precedent in either penalizing TCU fully for its self-proclaimed honesty, or reacting more leniently in light of the self-disclosure.

Wacker's action has been applauded by some noteworthy people: SWC Commisioner Fred Jacoby called it "commendable" and ex-Texas coach Darryl Royal said, "If a school had done that 20 years ago, I'd still be in coaching."

Ken Hatfield of Arkansas, the only SWC school outside of Texas, said, "It's the first time I can remember something like this happening."

The NCAA provides for self-disclosure as a mitigating factor in the rulebook, and even the infamously slow-moving governing body has been quick to react to what seems like an opportunity. It acceded to TCU's request for a speedy investigation, and has given the school a faint suggestion of leniency.

"The mood of the membership is hopeful," said the NCAA's assistant director of enforcement, Mike Glazier. "Maybe there will be other institutions that will examine themselves. Anytime there are violations, obviously that's not good, but we do believe some good can come out of it, because the school has taken corrective action."

What TCU claims it proposes to do is break the code of silence. Lowe has submitted a list of suggestions to TCU Chancellor William Tucker. He suggests banning alumni from any participation in the football program, which the school already has done. He suggests drawing up social and economic profiles of incoming recruits, making it easier to tell if a player lives above his means.

"The normal way of handling it is, the coach doesn't want to know anything and he tells the kid to lie and the alumni to lie," Lowe said. "The player code is, 'I don't know nothing.' The code of ethics among wrongful recruiters is, 'We don't know nothing.' I broke the alumni code. What I hope is that the players break their code and start saying, 'Yeah, that's right, I got this offer from this school.' Schools need to turn other schools in right away. And anytime a coach says, 'I don't know' about his own program, he's a lying son of a gun.

"A lot of people will still be hypocritical. But think of the results it could have."