College football enters an era of uncertainty in the 1990 season. The issue is not so much whether Notre Dame or Miami is No. 1, but realignment fever, the television dollar and the trash-flash offensive rules. The prevailing sentiment is that all of this is hurtling almost beyond control.

The College Football Association is charged with being a cartel, and 38 college juniors went to the NFL draft early, opting for a chance at a paycheck rather than life on campus. There is a rush to form new so-called superconferences, with Penn State agreeing to join the Big Ten and Arkansas the Southeastern Conference, while Texas and Texas A&M are flirting with the Pac-10 and Florida State is cozying up to the SEC and ACC.

"It's a fight for the buck," Miami Coach Dennis Erickson said. "I think that's what it's boiling down to. This year has been worse than most. Really, it's become a mess."

While the NCAA tries to legislate cost-cutting measures, the rule book weighs as much as a doorstop. Coaches are told to produce respectable graduation rates, but a fancy won-lost record is still the best guarantee of job security. There were 20 Division I coaching changes from 1989, most notably Bill Curry's bitter farewell to the fanatics of Alabama to go to Kentucky, where Jerry Claiborne tired of graduating all of his players and finishing 5-6. Bo Schembechler retired at Michigan, succeeded by Gary Moeller, and fired a typical last volley over his shoulder, charging that ill-informed, meddlesome college presidents were snarling up the game.

The overall impact of this on the field remains to be seen, but one visible side effect is that offensive statistics are spiraling ever upward, a result of pass-happy innovations like the run-and-shoot, rule changes patently favoring offenses, and the startling speed of athletes at every position. Not coincidentally, television favors high-scoring teams.

"We're in constant, constant change," said Auburn Coach Pat Dye. "It's getting bigger and the stakes are getting higher."

There is a wide variety to this year's Heisman Trophy candidates, from Colorado junior quarterback Darian Hagan to Notre Dame flanker Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, running back Darren Lewis of Texas A&M to quarterback Craig Erickson of Miami. But the recent trend has been toward record setters like Barry Sanders and Andre Ware, and the preseason favorite might be Brigham Young quarterback Ty Detmer, who last year set 13 marks as a sophomore.

One thing that hasn't changed is the list of annual contenders for the national championship, led by the triumvirate of defending champion Miami, 1988 titlist Notre Dame and forever frustrated Florida State. Miami is a model of consistency with a fair chance of becoming the first team since Alabama in 1978-79 to win back-to-back titles. But the Hurricanes must negotiate an unusually trying schedule of six bowl teams and replace seven NFL draftees.

Craig Erickson is unbeaten as a starter and has a brilliant supporting cast. Four of five starters return on the offensive line, and so does most of the backfield, led by running back Leonard Conley and wide receivers Wes Carroll and Randal Hill. Rebuilding must be done on a gutted defensive line and linebacking corps, but there are veteran anchors in tackle Russell Maryland and linebacker Maurice Crum.

The Hurricanes will be pressed for time, opening the season at BYU in a faceoff between Heisman hopefuls Erickson and Detmer. If they get safely past the Cougars, they can look forward to two heated rivalries, with Florida State visiting on Oct. 6, then a trip two weeks later to Notre Dame for the last game in that bitter series.

Notre Dame has gone 24-1 in the last two seasons despite the toughest schedule in the country. The Fighting Irish don't get much relief, but they have as much or more talent. The key will be sophomore quarterback Rick Mirer, for whom the offense has been revamped to an aerial attack. Mirer must stay healthy, backed up by just two freshmen, but there is plenty of depth around him in flanker Ismail and tailback Ricky Watters. Another large question mark is in the secondary, where the only returning starter is all-American Todd Lyght.

Florida State has been close enough to touch the national championship in each of the last three seasons, amassing a 32-4 record. A young team must mature in time for two decisive games, back-to-back road contests at Miami and Auburn. The Seminoles have fewer assets than usual, with just four starters back on offense and four on defense, and must break in a new quarterback, 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior Brad Johnson.

"That doesn't sound like the nucleus of a top 10 team," Coach Bobby Bowden said. "But we've got a lot of talent, good runners and throwers and catchers. We'd have to be terribly fortunate to make it all the way, but it's a team of potential."

In the conferences, parity has undermined the old authorities. The most significant example is in the Big Eight, where Nebraska and Oklahoma could be faced with a long-term challenge in Colorado. The Buffaloes' emotional 1989 season in memorial of the late Sal Aunese obscured the fact that they were loaded with California-imported talent, most of which returns: Hagan, tailback Eric Bieniemy and seven defensive starters. As usual, the Cornhuskers' greatest asset is their nonschedule.

The SEC gets more and more contentious all the time. Alabama has a graduate for a coach in Gene Stallings, and a revelation of a back in Siran Stacey. Tennessee has Chuck Webb in its backfield, but a road trip to Auburn and nonconference dates against Colorado and Notre Dame. Auburn is the favorite, with a defense that ranks among the finest, and a powerhouse backfield in Stacy Danley and James Joseph. The question for the Tigers is at quarterback, where Dye is torn between three candidates to replace Reggie Slack.

In the Big Ten, the loss of Schembechler and the rise of Illinois could mean a shift in the balance of power. Schembechler left the Michigan roster full for Moeller, a brutish offensive line intact, quarterback Elvis Grbac a proven talent, and eight returning starters on defense. But Moeller won just six games in three years when he coached at Illinois and has an unenviable task as Schembechler's hand-picked successor.

The Illini are on the verge of becoming a consistent threat under John Mackovic. The best defense in the conference returns, and if sophomore Jason Verduzco is even an adequate replacement for Jeff George at quarterback, then they are potentially top 10 material. The league title should be decided between the Illini and Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Nov. 10, as it has been for the last two years, but Michigan State and Ohio State could make it a four-way debate.

There will be just a moderate resurgence in the Pac-10 after a mediocre 1989 when it suffered an 18-15 nonconference record. Only Southern California won eight regular season games, and UCLA went 3-7-1. The Trojans should repeat as champions but have some major rebuilding, with just two defensive starters returning. Sophomore quarterback Todd Marinovich is back, and that should help.

In the ACC, Clemson seeks some stability under incoming coach Ken Hatfield after Danny Ford's resignation. Virginia's defense of its title could depend on its visit to Clemson Sept. 8, and whether it can break an 0-29 mark against the Tigers. Texas A&M and Arkansas should decide the Southwest, while faltering Texas Coach David McWilliams tries to buy some time.

The SWC has been distracted by Arkansas' defection and Texas and Texas A&M's contemplated switch to the Pac-10. In fact, over the next decade, all the lines of college football could be redrawn, unless the impulse toward upheaval abates.

"The way it struck me is, everybody said, 'It's 1990, let's change everything,' " Bowden said. "It's like everybody has a gun aimed in a certain direction, and we're all waiting. I really see 1990 as the year of change."