The nation's major college football bowl picture is clouded following Oklahoma's loss to Nebraska Saturday and Penn State Coach Joe Paterno's reluctance to discuss the matter until he sees the poll tomorrow.

Assuming Penn State is No. 1 - and the Nittany Lions are expected to be - it will hold the enviable position of being able to choose among the Cotton, Sugar or Orange bowls on New Year's Day.

The Rose Bowl already is committed to the Big 10 and Pac-10 champions.

Until Paterno names the Nittany Lion's preference, the only certainty is that Penn State still will be the nation's only unbeaten major team when bids go out at 6 p.m. Saturday. The 10-0 Lions do not close out the regular season until Nov. 24 against Pittsburgh.

"It's now going to be interesting to see when the polls are announced what Joe Paterno is going to do come Tuesday," said Jim Brock, executive vice president of the Cotton Bowl. "He's in the driver's seat."

Bowl officials want to know whether Paterno will keep his word and play the toughest opponent possible or take the easiest path to locking up Penn State's first national championship.

Barring major upsets Saturday (meeting Auburn beatin Georgia or Missouri toppling Nebraska), the talk among many bowl committee officials yesterday centered on the following possible lineup on New Year's Day:

Penn State against Houston in the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame against Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and Oklahoma against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, thus leaving Alabama as the odd-team out among the nation's powerhouses.

However, these same sources say these pairings are tenuous at best, because:

The American Broadcasting Co., which televises the Sugar Bowl, may lure Penn State there rather than Oklahoma with an extra regular-season appearance or two in future years, as it did to Pittsburgh's 1976 national championship team. Pitt has had the maximum five TV games the past two years.

Penn State might opt for the Orange Bowl against Nebraska. That way, should the Nittany Lions lose to Pitt, they still might claim the national championship by beating the Cornhuskers.

Alabama will be rooting for Auburn to upset Georgia this week or for Penn State to choose something other than Cotton.

Bowl sources see only a slim chance ABC would want to match up the Southeaster Conference cochampions in the Sugar Bowl where Georgia gets the automatic bid this year because Alabama was the conference representative last year.

And, in the Orange Bowl, Alabama already has beaten Nebraska this season, so a rematch appears unlikely, although there is precedent. That match up, however, could pair No. 1 and 2, if Penn State loses to Pitt.

However, Orange Bowl officials sources say, are likely to play it safe and take Notre Dame, the team that insures the game good TV ratings.

Notre Dame has won seven straight games after season-opening loses to Missouri and Michigan. The Irish also play Southern Cal Nov. 25.

The next three bowls, in stature, are Fiesta, Gator and Liberty. As George Olsen, executive vice president of the Gator Bowl, put it yesterday, "Everybody's just sitting around to see what happens Tuesday. We've got a meeting that afternoon."

There are seven likely possibilities for the six berths in those games, including winner of the Maryland-Clemson game Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

The other likely candidates for those games, barring upsets that might entangle the holiday picture are:

Texas, which lost the battle of Southwest Conference unbeatens to Houston Saturday; Arkansas; the Ohio State-Michigan loser (if Michigan beats Purdue this week as expected); the Southern Cal-UCLA loser in the game forthe-Pac-10title, and Louisiana State.

The Fiesta Bowl offers the most money of the three bowls - $500,000 to each team this year under a new contract with CBS. But the game is Christmas day, and reports out of Tuscaloosa say Bear Bryant and Alabama fans would rather go to the Gator Bowl, if the Crimson Tide is not playing on New Year's Day.

Around the nation, bowl sources say either the Maryland-Clemson winner or Arkansas will be the Gator opponent. Clemson, however, went to that bowl last year.

Texas seems a likely bet for the Fiesta Bowl.

Navy, battered physically and losers the past two weeks to Notre Dame and Syracuse following seven straight wins, still is in the running for the Garden State and Holiday bowls. However, a source close to the Liberty Bowl, said Navy could end up in that bowl by beating Flordia State impressively Saturday.

The reasoning: The bowl's theme is always a patriotic one, there is a large Navy installation in Memphis and the Mids, despite their only recent re-emergence into football respectability, nevertheless have the type of national following that ABC likes.