The major-college bowl picture is little clearer than it was before football season started, but key contests in the next two weeks will settle several bowl berths.

Surprise teams such as Houston, Michigan State, Purdue and Washington are in the thick of conference races at the nine-week mark (more or less) of the season. But they and others still must defeat some traditional conference powers to earn postseason consideration. Bids can go out at 6 p.m. on Nov. 18.

Purdue, which blanked Northwestern, 31-0, Saturday, has ridden the passing arm of Mark Herrmann to a 5-0 mark in the Big Ten. But the Boilermakers have an appointment at second-place Michigan (4-1) on Nov. 18 and must win that one and two other conference games if they are to become the first Big Ten team other than the Wolverines and Ohio State to reach the Rose Bowl since 1967.

The Buckeyes (4-1) entertain Michigan on Nov. 25.

UCLA, currently 6-0 in the Pac-10, hosts Southern California (4-1) in two weeks in a match that should determine the other Rose Bowl berth if Southern Cal meantime can knock off second-place Washington (5-1) this Saturday.

One Cotton Bowl spot most likely will be settled Saturday when No. 7 Texas (4-0 in the Southwest Conference) hosts eighth-ranked (No. 10, AP) Houston (5-0). The loser of the game should finish no worse than 9-2 overall for the season and could merit an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.

Its opponent would be either Alabama or Georgia, both unbeaten in the Southwestern Conference. The Tide's remaining hurdle is No. 12 Louisiana State (13th, UPI) Saturday in Birmingham. Should Georgia and Alabama, who do not play during the regular season, finish in a tie, the Bulldogs would earn the Sugar Bowl spot since Alabama played in the last one.

The Cotton Bowl slot opposite the SWC champion could go to No. 15 Notre Dame, which beat No. 11 Navy, 27-7, for its sixth straight after opening the season with two losses. The Irish also are contenders for the Sugar Bowl.

The Orange Bowl promoters are hoping for a dream matchup between the nation's top two teams, should form prevail. Penn State solidified its No. 2 ranking by throttling No. 5 Maryland Saturday, 27-3.

Penn State wuld likely face top-ranked Oklahoma, which travels to No. 4 Nebraska Saturdayto settle the Big Eight. Should both the Sooners and Nittany Lions go on to finish 11-0, the Orange Bowl would match two of the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy as well as decide the national championship.

Sooner halfback Billy Sims, the nation's leading rusher, has registered three consecutive 200-yard games including 221 yards Saturday in Oklahoma's 28-7 victory over Colorado. Lion quarterback Chuck Fusina passed for 234 yards against Maryland and is the school's all-time total offense leader.

The Terrapins have a showdown with 16th-ranked Clemson in two weeks for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. The winner likely will go the Gator or Liberty Bowl, the loser, which would likely finish no worse than 9-2 overall, to the other one or the Peach Bowl.

Should Navy, with Syracuse, Florida State and Army remaining on its schedule, finish no worse than 9-2, the Middies could rate an invitation to the Gator, Tangerine, Hall of Fame or Garden State Bowl.

The 7-1 Midshipmen have a national following and might also be offered an appearance in the new Holiday Bowl in San Diego - where there is a large naval installation.

Navy's last bowl game was a 28-6 loss to Texas in the 1964 Cotton Bowl.

Houston's Danny Davis scored two touchdowns in the first 4 1/2 minutes to start the Cougars to a 63-6 rout of Texas Christian. Freshman Alvin Moore ran for 118 yards and two scores to lead Arizona State to a 35-21 Pac-10 victory over visiting California. Roch Hontas tossed two scoring passes and Tulane staged a last-second goal-line stand to triumph over Miami (Fla.), 20-16.

Outstanding individual performances saw Louisville's Nathan Poole rush for 269 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinals' 38-20 victory over Wichita State, and UCLA's Theotis Brown gain 274 yards on 26 carries with touchdown runs of 74 and 68 yards as the Bruins rallied to disappoint Oregon, 23-21.