Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

Free agency has reached the college level.

Not for the athletes, of course. But conferences and institutions now have the freedom to decide the economic and geographic future of intercollegiate athletics.Penn State's move to the Big 10, followed closely by the jump of Arkansas from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference, has triggered a domino effect that could leave major-college football with a completely different look in the 1990s.

Welcome to the era of the superconference. Before all the shuffling is finished, it's possible that at least one current major conference will disband, a few more will drop to Division I-AA and there will be only one true independent - Notre Dame.

"I think what you will see is not many eight- or 10-team conferences," said Miami Athletic Director Sam Jankovich, whose school is among the most highly sought in the scramble. "You will see more 12 or 14-team conferences with separate divisions."

The signs already are falling into place. The Southeastern Conference already is seeking at least one more school and is formulating plans to split into two divisions. The Metro Conference, previously inactive in football, has unveiled plans for a possible 16-team megaleague in football, stretching along the entire Eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River.

The Southwest Conference, reduced to a one-state league with the defection of Arkansas, is discussing the possibility of a merger with the Big Eight, which could lose members in several directions. That would create a league with 12 to 14 teams.

"There are a number of conferences talking with other leagues on a rather urgent basis," said Thomas Hansen, commissioner of the Pacific 10 Conference.

Among other hot items making the rounds:

- The SEC offering invitations to Miami, Florida State and South Carolina to join Arkansas in an expanded league.

- The Big 10 rescinding its moratorium on further expansion and considering Nebraska, Syracuse or Pittsburgh for membership.

- Oklahoma replacing Arkansas in the Southwest Conference.

- The Pac-10 looking to include Colorado, Brigham Young or San Diego State and breaking into two divisions.

- The Atlantic Coast Conference offering football-only membership to three Big East schools - Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College.

- Fresno State leaving the Big West for the Pac-10 or Western Athletic Conference.

The pressure to join a superconference is great. Those without an affiliation when all the juggling is over may find themselves in Division I-AA.

Independents, who used to be able to schedule each other, may find themselves locked out of quality opponents once conference seasons begin.

"As former independents drop you from their schedules - schedules which coincide with conference playing schedules - it's impossible to add existing conference teams into those dates," said Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse athletic director. "You don't have enough preconference dates available to get 11 games."

The only exception, of course, would be Notre Dame, which already is scheduled into the year 2004.

The catalyst for all the frenzied activity, as usual, is money and television. With Notre Dame's breakaway from the College Football Association to sign its own TV deal, conferences figure they also can control their own destiny when new deals are negotiated in 1995 or sooner.

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