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.

"This is a fairly selfish attempt by institutions with television strength trying to maximize their strength for the next set of rights fees," said Hansen, whose conference does not belong to the CFA and, in a consortium with the Big 10, negotiated its own deal with ABC. "I think the SEC is setting itself up to remove itself from the CFA package."

The rush is on because that may happen sooner than originally thought. The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating possible restraint-of-trade violations in the CFA's new $300 million, five-year deal with ABC that goes into effect next year. If the FTC voids the contract, conferences could cut their own deals immediately.

Whether or not the FTC steps in, the CFA may be standing on its last legs.

"I think people are unsure as to the future of who is going to control TV and whether the CFA can maintain viability," said Ralph McFillen, commissioner of the Metro Conference. "No one is trying to move out of the CFA. People are just looking to position themselves that if (FTC intervention) comes to pass, they will have stronger bargaining power with TV."

The Metro Conference's proposal could make it a major player immediately. The eight current members - Cincinnati, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis State, South Carolina, Southern Mississippi, Tulane and Virginia Tech - would be joined for football by Boston College, East Carolina, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple and West Virginia.

Even if only 12 or 14 schools went along, the plan still would transform the Metro into a football power that would cover roughly one-third of the nation's television homes. That's 50 percent more than the amount covered by the Big 10, the current market-share leader.

In addition, the Metro would be in position to secure a high-dollar contract with one of the major bowls. The Orange Bowl, wondering about the future of the Big Eight, already has expressed an interest in an affiliation with the Metro champion.

In fact, bowl games could become the venue for divisional winners to face each other for the conference championship. A Sugar Bowl featuring Arkansas against Alabama for the SEC title would be just as popular as any other matchup in the Superdome. And who wouldn't be intrigued by a Miami-Syracuse battle in the Orange Bowl for the Metro championship?

If that happens, it wouldn't be long before conference champions meet each other in a national football playoff.

"If you had asked me that question six months ago, I would say college football playoffs would not take place during my tenure in this business. That has changed," said Miami's Jankovich, who remains a staunch supporter of the current bowl system.

But is the lure of money worth the headaches created by realignment and the bitterness left behind? Arkansas will be the first to find out.

"The cost of this will be our longtime association with friends in the Southwest Conference," Athletic Director Frank Broyles said. "The cost of leaving friends is hard to evaluate."

In Texas, the general feeling is Arkansas burned its bridges in leaving the SWC. Several coaches have expressed an interest in dropping Arkansas from their schedules now, and certainly will not be scheduling future meetings against the Razorbacks.

The Southeastern Conference also has come in for some harsh words.

"I think what the SEC did was very unethical in trying to take a member of the SWC," said Fred Jacoby, Southwest Conference commissioner.

Still, its unlikely the prospect of hard feelings will stop conferences and institutions from doing everything they can to strengthen themselves. By 1993, the structure of realignment will be in full effect, and the face of college football could be completely different.