As preposterous as it may sound, Boston has emerged, however quietly, as this season's top college football city. Though not noted as a cradle of touchdowns, New England's largest metropolis has had an exceptionally good year on ye olde gridiron.
Leading the way, of course, is 12th-ranked Boston College, which has risen to a position of national prominence by beating back-to-back national champions Clemson and Penn State, plus traditionally powerful Alabama. The Eagles are currently preparing to meet Notre Dame in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29.
Largely overlooked until now, even locally, is Boston University, which plays in the almost-major flight known as Division I-AA. On Sunday, however, B.U. made people take notice of its stunning upset of Eastern Kentucky in the I-AA playoffs. Knocking off the defending national champions was quite a coup, especially in Richmond, Ky., where the Colonels hadn't lost since 1977.
That same day, Bentley College, a school just inside the ''Technology Highway'' ringing greater Boston, secured its second consecutive national club football championship with a 28-20 victory over Worcester State.
The week before, Harvard, which plays its games in Boston even though the main campus is across the Charles River in Cambridge, won the centenniel Harvard-Yale clash to grab a share of the Ivy League title.
Even Northeastern, which is always being confused with Northwestern, came through with its first winning season in five years, a fact certainly distinguishing the Back Bay school from its near-namesake on Lake Michigan.
With the Huskies' 6-4-1 mark, the ''big four'' of Boston football - Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, and Northeastern - all completed successful campaigns for only the second time in that last 15 years. Besides seeing winning football, local fans have been treated to an entertaining brand of play.
Quarterback Doug Flutie, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is responsible for generating a lot of the excitement at Boston College, where his scrambling makes him a renowned escape artist.
At Harvard, innovative coach Joe Restic uses a no-holds-barred offense called the Multiflex, which occasionally sends even the quarterback in motion.
At Northeastern, Coach Paul Pawlak decided to go to the air after several years with a ground-oriented attack. Senior quarterback Gregg Prebles wound up passing for more yardage than in the previous two years combined.
At Boston University, junior tailback Paul Lewis has been a one-man highlight film, scoring more touchdowns (20 in the regular season) than he did a year ago as the I-AA scoring champion.
At times, though, Lewis and his teammates might as well have been playing in a closet for all the attention they've received. A sign at one end of Nickerson Field, the Terriers' home, says ''Beware of Dogs.'' People appear to take the message literally judging by the size of the crowds.
B.U. football has always been a hard sell, partly because the school's urban campus doesn't foster the kind of ambiance associated with college games elsewhere. The biggest crowd this season was 7,300 for Yankee Conference rival Rhode Island, and the smallest 1,500 for intersectional foe Morgan State.
The average attendance fell about halfway between, a sad figure for a team that plays in an 18,700-seat stadium and has been New England's winningest school in either Division I-A or I-AA with a 43-21-1 record since 1978.
The athletic department has been groping for solutions to its attendance woes , and now has Brian Dowling, a former Yale quarterback, examining the problem in his capacity as B.U.'s director of sports marketing.
A main objective of any strategy will be to break through the student apathy. ''There seems to be an engrained feeling that it's not fashionable to attend football games,'' says Ed Carpenter, B.U.'s sports information director. ''You'd think freshmen would come here with some kind of school spirit left over from their high school days. But perhaps because there are so many other attractive things to do in a city like Boston, we lose them right away, and then it's hard to pick them up later as upperclassmen. And if they don't come as students you can't expect them to come as alumni.''
It doesn't help that three high-rise dormitories overlook Nickerson Field, once Braves Field, home to Boston's former National League baseball team. The towers essentially form a bank of luxury boxes from which students can watch the action from their rooms (not a bad idea considering some of the horrendous weather B.U. games have been played in). The presence of a considerable ''knothole'' population has been evident during night games, when dorm lights are flashed after Terrier scores.
The big sport on campus has traditionally been ice hockey, which has a large following thanks to many B.U. successes, including national championships in 1971, 1972, and 1978. The football Terriers would like to think what they have accomplished will eventually build a similarly strong constituency. For the time being, though, Carpenter says team members are ''playing for 80 young men and eight coaches.'' They'll do so again on Saturday, when the Terriers travel to Greenville, S.C., to face Furman in a I-AA quarterfinal game.
While B.U. wonders how to attract fans, Boston College is more concerned about how to accommodate them. Coach Jack Bicknell and quarterback Flutie have ushered in a new era of prosperity and enthusiasm at the Chestnut Hill campus, where the high-flying Eagles have suddenly outgrown 32,000-seat Alumni Stadium. Demand for tickets compelled B.C. to switch games against Penn State, Holy Cross , and Alabama to Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro.
Northeastern has a perfectly adequate stadium in 7,000-seat Parsons Field, but it's tucked away in residential Brookline several miles off campus. The location is inconvenient, especially since the team must practice there too. Bo Lyons, an assistant dean and the Huskies' former head coach, has proposed building a student athletic facility on campus with a new football stadium on top. Students have already expressed their support of the idea, and now the administration is considering it.
As odd as a third-floor field may seem, the symbolism couldn't be better, for things are clearly looking up in Boston football circles. How UPI rates the football teams
The United Press International Board of Coaches Top 20 1983 college football ratings, with first-place votes in parentheses (total points based on 15 points for first place, 14 for second, etc.).
1.Nebraska (33) (12-0) 537 2.Texas (3) (11-0) 504 3.Auburn (9-1) 464 4.Miami (Fla.) (10-1) 414 5.Illinois (10-1) 412 6.Southern Methodist (10-1) 347 7.Georgia (9-1-1) 313 8.Michigan (9-2) 271 9.Brigham Young (10-1) 246 10.Iowa (9-2) 210 11.Florida (7-2-1) 154 12.Boston College (9-2) 127 13.Ohio State (8-3) 83 14.Pittsburgh (8-2-1) 73 15.Maryland (8-3) 29 16.Air Force (8-2) 22 17.Baylor (7-3-1) 20 18.Virginia Tech (9-2) 19 19.West Virginia (8-3) 25 20.Oklahoma (7-4) 12