BOSTON — WHO'S No. 1? That topic has perplexed American football fans ever since Rutgers and Princeton scrimmaged in the first college game in 1869.
Again the arguments begin: Is unbeaten Nebraska this year's best? Undefeated Ohio State? High-flying Florida? Mighty Tennessee? Amazing Northwestern?
Sportswriter Frank Dascenzo of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun reflects the nation's frustration over such questions. Even though Mr. Dascenzo votes in the Associated Press's Top 25 poll, he yearns for a championship playoff.
''It's so sad,'' he laments. ''Everybody sits around and talks about, 'Well, this is a better team.' 'No, this is a better team.' Imagine if we had to do that in basketball! It's terrible.''
Lacking a playoff, football relies on the bowls - Rose, Orange, Sugar, Fiesta - to find a champ. Yet sometimes bowl games only add to the confusion.
The polls help - sometimes. This year, polls by AP and USA Today/CNN both put Florida State at the top for weeks - until the Seminoles lost to Virginia. The New York Times computer-generated top 25, however, never rated Florida State so highly.
Currently, all three ratings put Nebraska in first place, but there's a fight for No. 2. The Times puts Florida at No. 2, AP and USA/CNN pick Ohio State. (See ratings box below.)
The United States has put a man on the moon, Dascenzo complains: Can't it create a playoff to settle such arguments?
Some folks are trying. Several major bowls and football conferences have gotten together this year in a Bowl Alliance (they previously shared a coalition) to maximize the potential for holding an unofficial championship.
The alliance, which creates a partnership among the Big Eight, Big East, Southwest, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern conferences (plus Notre Dame) and the Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar bowls, has bestowed this season's favored-bowl status upon the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. That status rotates to the Sugar and Orange bowls in future years.
The Jan. 2 bowl will pay the participating teams $8.5 million apiece and the alliance $9 million.
The alliance's formula calls for the Fiesta to choose the alliance's best available teams on Dec. 3, the day after the regular season ends. The Orange gets the third and fifth picks, the Sugar the fourth and sixth.
The catch is, the Big Ten and Pacific-10 conferences have stuck by their 50-year commitment to play in the Rose Bowl. If a team from those conferences is ranked No. 1 or 2 when the bowl matchups are set (a good possibility for Ohio State), the Fiesta will not be a championship clash.
''The Fiesta will still be the last bowl played,'' says CBS spokeswoman Leslie Anne Wade, who indicates that ''national championship'' promos will air until and unless it's clear that the Fiesta won't fill the bill.
While fans enjoy arguing the merits of top-ranked teams, many would prefer the squads settled things on the field. Without a championship, the major powers are sometimes like ships passing in the night.
Take last season: Nebraska and Penn State never played each other to determine which undefeated team was better. Nebraska was crowned No. 1 after an impressive Orange Bowl victory over Miami, while Penn State, with a predictable win over Cinderella Oregon, was No. 2.
Joe Paterno, Penn State's coach, says, ''My thoughts about a playoff are not very complex: I would like to see four teams come out of the bowls.''
Lee Corso, a former coach and now a commentator on ESPN, says a single ''dream matchup'' after the bowls would suffice.
This season there are still three teams poised to complete perfect regular seasons Nebraska, Ohio State, and Florida. Barring an upset, Nebraska and Florida likely will meet in the Fiesta. If Nebraska wins, Ohio State, like Penn State before it, may be powerless to earn a share of the No. 1 rating.
The ''mythical national championship,'' as some call it, comes down to votes more often than scores. No. 1 and No. 2 have met in bowl play just five times since 1980.
What exasperates some people is that the National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sports' major governing body, holds championships in numerous sports - including football, but only in football's lower divisions (Divisions I-AA, II, and III).
BIG-TIME football remains an island in the stream, many observers agree, because the bowls wield so much influence. Mr. Corso says that ''the bowl people won't allow'' a national playoff and the millions they have paid college teams over the years ''buys a lot of friends.''
Nevertheless, the climate is changing, partly because colleges see how successful the 64-team Division I college basketball tournament has become
''I think there's a recognition that it would be a tremendous promotional boost for college football,'' says Charles Neinas, executive director of the College Football Association, a big-time football consortium.
Cedric Dempsey, the NCAA's executive director, says that his organization estimates that there is ''$100 million more revenue out there with a [football] playoff, and that's conservative.''
But even if TV networks and corporate sponsors could turn a playoff into a huge cash cow, the NCAA's Presidents Commission, composed of university presidents, has shelved any action.
The commission recently surveyed student-athletes with bowl-playing experience about extending the season. ''They felt that they only have three months a year to call their own,'' Mr. Dempsey says, ''and one of these was January.''