Texas temperatures plummeted more than 50 degrees last night and raised the prospect of a Cotton Bowl being played Saturday in snow, with temperatures in the 20s.

And whom would cold, damp weather favor, Maryland or Houston?

"The cold weather doesn't mean anything," said Houston coach Bill Yeoman. "It's the same way if it's wet or any other thing. We beat Rice in 37-degree weather and the chill factor was lower."

"Bull," said Maryland offensive tackle John Zernhelt. "It'll help us more. I know if we got through practices in College Park last week it won't effect us down here."

Seventy-degree weather had been expected for the meeting of the Terrapins, No. 4 team in the Associated Press poll, and the Cougarw, No. 6 on the AP list (2 p.m., WTOP-TV-9).

A cold front dropped the temperature to 12 degrees this morning, a record here for the date, following a 69-degree high Thursday. Highs in the 20s and a 30 per cent chance of snow were forcast for Saturday.

Oddsmakers have installed Maryland as a 1 1/2-point favorite to complete a 12-0 season. Only top-ranked Pittsburgh, which faces Georgia in the Sugar Bowl earlier on New Year's Day, can also go unbeaten this year.

Maryland needs a minor miracle, such as ties in both the Sugar and Rose bowls, to be voted the mythical national championship by the wire services.

"If you go 12-0, who's to say you're not No. 1?" said Maryland fullback Tim Wilson. "If you have an undefeated season, no one can tell me I'm not No. 1."

Some 2,500 tickets remained unsold today for the Cotton Bowl. Houston and Maryland are apparent outcasts in this college football hotbed. Houston, which went 9-2 and shared the Southwest Conference championship in its first year of title eligbility, is considered an interloper by the longtime SWC teams and fans. Maryland still is not considered a premier national attraction.

"People still don't believe how good we are," said Maryland split end Vince Kinney. "And they won't believe it until we go out there on national TV and show just what we can do."

The last time Maryland appeared on National TV, the Terps shut out Florida, 13-0, in the 1975 Gator Bowl, the fourth success in their current 15-game winning streak.

Except for what each has seen on film, neither team knows much about the other. Most players on both teams are praising their foes.

But there also is misinformation. Anthony Francis the Houston cornerback who intercepted 10 passes this season, said flatly tha Maryland quarterback Mark Manges is a good passer but not a good runner. Manages is a better runner than passer.

"I really don't think that Houston is that much better than anyone we've played," said Maryland defensive guard Larry Seder. "But it's hard to say. We can watch films all we want, but we will have to get on the field to find out for sure."

What makes Houston different from Maryland's 11 previous victims this season is an offense that is equally adept at running or passing. Quarterback Danny Davis is the key to the Cougars' success and No. 8 ranking on total offense, 414 yards per game.

Cold weather makes the ball-handling in Houston's triple-option veer more diffciult, and slippery. Wet or windy conditions would enable Maryland's defense, second-ranked nationally, to concentrate on stopping the run.

The Maryland defense, which yielded 85 points this season, will be going for its fourth straight shutout. The wide-tackle-six alignment has not allowed a rushing touchdown in 22 quarters.

Maryland can be expected to run straight at Houston's five-two defense in the event of bad weather, with such linemen as Bob Raba, Tom Schick, Ed Fulton, Gene Ochap, Dave Conrad and Mike Yeates using their bulk to try to open holes for fullback Tim Wilson and tailbacks Preacher Maddox and George Scott.

Houston's defense is led by all-America tackle Wilson Whitley. It has the reputation of being a big-play outfit, with a nation-leading 29 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries offsetting is yield of 333 yards per game and 5.1 yards per play.

Yeoman, Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne and most of the Terps agree that the offense that controls the ball will win the game.

"We'll stress ball control as always," said manges. "A big reason our defense ended up second in the country was because our offense controlled the ball. Davis and (leading rusher) Alois Blackwell are tremendous players, but if they are on the bench they can't hurt you."