As a television attraction," Beano Cook, CBS Sports' irrepressible publicist, likes to muse, Notre Dame in a bowl game ranks about fifth-behind Mary Tyler More's smile, World War II, Muhammad Ali and the Second Coming."

When it is time for postseason college football, network executives traditional have looked longingly toward the Golden Dome, the ghosts of Rockne and the Gipper, and the legions of "Subway Alumni" to help them win the big game in the ratings.

"Notre Dame is the only school with a real national following," says Cook, who knows bowls like Betty Crocker knows batters. "They could be 7-4 and still get a great rating. The whole bowl picture changed when they started going in 1969."

Which explains why ppeople at CBS undoubtedly said a few "Hail Marys," and then gave thanks when Notre Dame (8-3) wound up in the Cotton Bowl against Houston on New Year's Day.

That game begins at 2 p.m., Eastern time, and runs head-to-head against the college blockbuster of the year: top-ranked Penn State (11-0) versus No. 2 Alabama (10-1) for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl on ABC.

With any team but Notre Dame to carry its standard in the ratings battle, CBS would feel like your Aunt Gertrude against Betty Crocker in the national bake-off. Only the Irish can keep the Cotton from a TV fate worse than an attack of boll weevils.

"We'll still get beat, but it won't be bad," says Cook. "Nothing like what happened to ABC last year."

Last year's Sugar Bowl - Alabama over Ohio State, 35.6-got wiped out in the ratings because it clashed with Notre Dame swamping top-ranked texas in the Cotton Bowl and thereby vaulting totton Bowl got a whooping daytime rating of 23.4, and a 45 "share," which means that 45 percent of all sets in use during a given minute were tuned to that game. The Sugar Bowl got only a 10.3 rating and 20 share. That means approximately 9 million more households watched the Cotton than the Sugar, which turned out to be only the fifth highest-rated bowl game, behind the Rose, the prime-time Orange, the Cotton and the Fiesta.

ABC, needless to say, was not peased.

CBS could have been in a similarly defense posture this year, except for Notre Dame.

ABC got killed last year not because the Cotton was on CBS, but because it was Notre Dame," says Cook. "It will be closer this time, because of Notre Dame again. They're the bigest TV draw in sports."

Ironically, right up until the day bowl bids went out (Nov. 11), it looked as if ABC would have a turkey again for New Year's dinner.

The network was reportedly maneuvering to avert another disaster when it appeared that Georgia, a weal attraction nationally, would be the host team in the Sugar Bowl. Word within the industry was that if this came to pass, ABC was insisting on either Oklahoma or Notre Dame as the opponent.

But then Auburn tied Georgia, which made Alabama the Southeastern Conference champion and Sugar Bowl host. And then second-ranked Neoraska lost to Missouri, which moved Alabama up to No. 2 in the rankings and made the Sugar Bowl the logical place for Penn State to go, since Coach Joe Paterno's team had voted to play the highest-ranked opponent available in a major bowl.

All of ABC's worries had suddenly turned of sugar plums, and visions of prime time danced in corporate heads. ABC Sports, in fact, asked to shift the game to an 8 p.m. start, but was turned down by the network, which did not want to disrupt its regular entertainment programming.

CBS-saddled with Houston, which does not have nearly the appeal of Texas, as the Southwest Conference champ and Cotton Bowl host-lucked out with Notre Dame. Meanwhile, NBC wound up with rematch of the Big Eight cochamps, Nebraska (9-2) and Oklahoma (10-1), in the Orange Bowl, instead of the Penn State-Nebraska (9-2) and Oklahoma (10-1), in the Orange Bowl, instead of the Penn State-Nebraska game it had hoped for.

CBS has neither the inclination, nor the leverage, to influence bowl selections to the extent ABC reportedly does. Cbs talks to the committees, makes suggestions, applies some pressure but doesn't try to dictate the teams in games it will broadcast the way ABC does, according to industry insiders.

ABC has clout because it televises the NCAA's regular-season college football package. It can help a school decide which bowl to go to, directly or indirectly, by holding up a tantalizig carrot: the promise of lucrative extra regular-season TV appearances in the future.

It is said that only NBC-which televises the Rose Bowl (automatically pairing the champions of the Big Ten and Pacific 10, Michigan and Southern California this year) on New Year's Day the Orange that night and the Fiesta on Christmas Day-adopts a "hands-off" policy on team selection.

"NBC is great that way; they would no more try to pressure us than jump out the window," says Orange Bowl selection chairman Tom Wood. "We ask their advice. We call up and ask how many TV sets various teams light up in major markets, because exposure is important to us in selling Miami. But the only time the network gets involved is when we ask questions."

Otherwise, it keeps quiet and just lets the coach of whatever squad shows up swear into a live mike-as UCLA's Terry Donahue did during the Fiesta Bowl.

Television is important to all the bowls, financially and in terms of prestige and the ability to lure the best available teams.

Players have egos and like to perform before the largest possible audience. So do coaches, who know how much national TV helps them in precruiting and building their programs.

School administractors realize that the major bowls pay hefty sums-each Orange Bowl school, for instance, gets $1.15 million-because of the heavy TV rights fees they command: between $2 million and $3 millon for the Cotton, Orange and Sugar, and $3.3 million for the granddaddy Rose.

The Rose Bowl, a venerable institution even though its pageantry has been better than the football in recent years, annually gets the best rating. It starts at 4 p.m., Eastern time, and last year pulled a 29.2 rating and 46 share. The Orange, in prime time, was second with a 27.7 rating and 41 share.

The "minor" bowls generally get considerably smaller ratings and less TV money than the "majors," although the Fiesta last year got an 18.2 rating and 55 share against light Christmas aftermoon competition.

The Fiesta gets a $400,000 rights fee from NBC, the prime-timer Gator (Dec. 29, 9 p.m.) about $350,000 from ABC, the afternoon Liberty (ABC), Sun (CBS) and Peach (CBS) in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000 each.

Still, in getting good teams, these bowls have a colossal advantage over their brethren that do not have network TV contracts. Many of these are syndicated on such independent networks as Mizlou, which is a poor substitute-as anyone who watched Navy beat Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl knows.

"For schools that have to share TV money with others in their conference, exposure is often more important than money," says one network executive. "That's why the Gator Bowl is fifth in prestige, behind the majors. The game has prime-time TV, and the schools love that."

Almost as much as TV loves Notre Dame.