The Sugar Bowl. How sweet it is.

It is being touted as the only bowl that counts this year, the one that turns all of the others into mere exhibitions. It is the alleged battle for the mythical national championship between No. 1-ranked Penn State and No.2 Alabama.

This is what college football hopes and prays for every season-an on-the-field confrontation to decide who is No. 1. But wait. Even though the winner of the Superdome showdown Jan. 1 will lay claim to the national championship, there are a number of other things-and teams-to be taken into consideration.

Penns State, 11-0, and top-ranked in both polls, deserves to be the national champion if it defeata Alabama. That is unquestionable. The hassle will start if Alabama comes out on top.

If Alabama wins and is declared national champion, both possible, there will be a lot of ballyhooing from the likes of No.3 Southern California, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 5 Michigan if they win their bowl games.

Notre Dame bolted all the way from No. 5 to the national championship with its victory over No. 1 Texas in last year's Cotton Bowl, so they all have hope.

A great many football experts feel Southern California is the best team outside of the National Football League, and perhaps as good as some teams in it, and should be ranked No. 1 now and be the national champion if it beats Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

The Trojans, 10-1 and losers to only Arizona State, know how good they are, too, and they are just waiting for Penn State to make a slip.

"If Penn State beats Alabama, it deserves to be No. 1," said Southern California Coach John Robinson, "If they lose, then a legitimate claim can be made for several teams to be considered.

"alabama-which is being promoted as ABC's (the television network broadcasting the Sugar Bowl) inheritor of the national title if it wins is a great team," Robinson said. "But comparing it to us, people should remember we beat them in Birmingham (24-14) and have also played perhaps the most difficult schedule in the country."

Charles White, the Trojan All-America running back, agreed.

"If we hadn't lost that one game to Arizona State, there wouldn't be any question who was No. 1," White said.

"but we did lose a game so it comes down to our final game. If all the right things happen, we can be the national champions."

Penn State Coach Joe Paterno and Alabamahs Bear Bryant are playing it cool. The Nittany Lions arrived in New Orleans Tuesday and Paterno immediately announced he wants his players to have a good time. "We are here for more than just a football game," he said, " but we do want to play the game and win it."

Three Paterno teams (1968, 1969 and 1973) finished undefeated, yet none was voted the national chamption.

Bryant, whose Alabama teams have won four national championships, said he isn't "entering into that national championship talk at all."

"I'm going to let the voters do the voting," Bryant said. "If we win and no one else impresses me tremendously, though, I'm going to vote for us. I have one vote, as you know (UPI poll)."

The jury is still out on just how good Penn State is. Its two biggest games were against Ohio State and Maryland, both grossly overrated. Alabama will be the best team the Lions have played.

Auburn Coach Doug Barfield, after losing to alabama, 34-16, in the regular-season finale, said, "I personally don't think Penn State will be a problem for Alabama." He said only what a lot of others believe.

Oklahoma would be No. 1 and playing for the title had it not lost six fumbles in its 17-14 defeat by Nebraska.

Michigan is a longshot for the naional title. If Alabama squeaks by Penn State in a bad game, Oklahoma falls to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and Michigan dumps Southern Cal, the Wolverines could argue a mean case in their favor. But Michigan is a perennial bowl flop.