It is, consensus says, too close to call. But, when pressed, a few of the lesser challengers to these NCAA Ski Championships pointed ski poles toward Utah as their favorite

The reasons dealt with conditions, not talent.

First is the fact that Vermont hasn't had the snow Utah has. Eastern resorts are having a very lean snowfall, which has meant that eastern schools have not had the best training conditions. Utah, on the other hand, has had great snow and better training.

Second is the altitude. It's over 6,000 feet here in Jackson Hole. Utah skiers are used to it; eastern skiers aren't. Utah will be skiing a little lower than its skiers are used to, while Vermont skiers will be skiing higher, in thinner air.

Something not so obvious is the fact that Vermont has an NCAA jinx. Somehow, some way, Vermont skiers always seem to blow one event. Last year it was the women's giant slalom. Expected to win it, the Catamount ladies finished a distant fourth. They were never able to recover. The year before that, it was the men's slalom, and the same the year before that.

One little mistake against a team that doesn't make mistakes is costly. In Vermont's case, seven seconds and no firsts in the last eight years. Utah, in contrast, has six firsts, three in a row, and one second - the year Vermont finished third.

Utah is again strong, but so is Vermont. Which school is stronger is impossible to tell until after the NCAAs because it's the only time the two meet. But, each year the finals always come down to Utah/Vermont.

Utah is strongest this year in women's events, especially in the alpine. All four of its skier are in the first seed, which is recognized as the best skiers. Also, Utah's women's nordic team has done well.

Vermont will rely on experience. Eleven of its 16 (four each in four events) skiers is a returning all-America. Its strongest area seems to be men's alpine.

For the first time in the ski finals, the NCAA has chosen to move the event back one day. Traditionally skied Wednesday through Saturday, these finals will be skied Thursday through Sunday.

One thing that could hurt both Utah and Vermont is new snow. The first event skied Thursday was the women's GS. The new snow may have hurt Utah because the first skiers, those in the first seed, may have had to break trail for later skiers. It may have hurt Vermont because its skiers haven't been used to skiing on soft snow.