THE MAN HAS been head football coach at BYU for 27 years, so it makes sense that LaVell Edwards wasn't terribly nervous this week. There he was at a luncheon, ticking off the legendary teams on his schedule like he was going over his grocery list.

While the Cougars have aspirations of rebounding from a 6-5 season, there are some problems involved. First and foremost is their early season schedule. They begin with a game at Alabama Saturday, followed by a home game against Arizona State and a road trip to Washington. The mantra among BYU fans is, "If we can just get past those first three games . . . "Realistically, the Cougars could be 0-3 three weeks from now. Arizona State is ranked No. 7 in Sports Illustrated's preseason poll, Washington No. 12. Though Alabama is only ranked No. 47, that's 10 ahead of Utah, another team the Cougars are concerned about this year. Also, the game is in Tuscaloosa, where the Crimson Tide lose as often as it snows - rarely.So why don't the Cougars just hang a sign from their backs that says, "Kick Me!"? Playing in the WAC isn't like playing in the SEC or Big Ten. Once the Cougars get past the first three games on their schedule, things really should get easier. But arriving in one piece is the problem.

The Cougars, of course, have opened other seasons with formidable early schedules. They wouldn't think of playing patsies. There's not a Murray State in the bunch. Well, OK, there IS a Murray State in the bunch, but not until the fourth game this year. Prior to that the Cougars could end up being traumatized. They might start losing early, fall into a rut and - who knows? - find themselves doing something unthinkable, like having a losing season.

All of which has Edwards so antsy he's about ready to break into a yawn.

Pardon him if he isn't jumping out of his skin yet. When it comes to football, there's not much he hasn't seen. Big opponents come and go. He's beaten Miami, Pittsburgh, Washington and Texas A&M - and lost to them all, too. During interviews this week it was hard not to look bored. Who could blame him? What was he supposed to do about his schedule? Get the hives? Call in the National Guard? Book a one-way ticket to Algiers?

"We feel good about our chances. We feel good about our fall camp," he said (as usual). "We have some very good players. If we can get through that first few of games, and we'd love to win a couple of them, that would be great. We've done it before.

"We've won some of those games, beaten some of those teams, but it's very important for us to come out and play well."

If the start on BYU's season seems daunting, remember this: Playing national programs is pretty much standard procedure. In most cases, the Cougars have come out from dangerous non-conference games and thrived. For example, in 1984 they played No. 3 Pittsburgh, and Baylor, two highly regarded programs, and ended up going undefeated and winning the national championship. In 1987 they opened the season playing Pittsburgh, Texas and a revived TCU. They lost two of the three but still finished 9-4, counting a trip to the All-American Bowl. Not a benchmark year, but one most teams would treasure.

In 1990 BYU didn't have a terribly tough early schedule, but the Cougars did have No. 1 Miami, whom they beat 28-21. They went on to a 10-3 bowl season.

The 1991 season was as similar to this year as any. BYU opened with Florida State, UCLA and Penn State and lost to all three. Nevertheless, the Cougars ended up going 8-0-2 the rest of the way, winning the WAC and attending the Holiday Bowl. The next year they played Notre Dame and Penn State, losing to the Irish but beating the No. 14 Nittany Lions. They finished 8-5, won the WAC and attended a bowl game.

Recent history has included some rough openers, as well. In 1996 BYU had early games against Texas A&M and Washington. The Cougars won the first one but lost at Washington, dashing their hopes of a perfect season. Nevertheless, they went on to win 12 straight, including the Cotton Bowl, and finish No. 5 nationally. Last year they split with Washington and ASU.

What all this means is that while the Cougars have dangerous opponents the next three weeks, it may not say much at all about the rest of the season. They may crash and burn in non-conference games, yet pillage and burn the WAC. They've been here before, winning some and losing some. As Edwards has learned, how you start and how you finish can be two different things entirely.