There will be no national championship trophy at stake, no Heisman Trophy winner on the field when the 79th Cotton Bowl, matching Notre Dame and Houston, gets underway today at 2 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9).

But Dan Devine, the Notre Dame coach and head shill, insists, "I think it's going to be the best bowl game played this year."

"I'm sure our kids are getting the same stuff everyone else is hearing, that the big game is the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans," he said. "I don't want to get into all of that, but if I were a fan given a choice, I'd buy a ticket to see Notre Dame and Houston."

A capacity crowd of 76,000 is espected despite a weather forecast that calls for temperatures in the low 30s and the possibility of more of the freezing rain that left this city looking like Ice Station Zebra on New Year's Eve.

The oddsmakers say the Irish (8-3) are four-point favorites to prevail over the Southwest Conference champion Cougars (9-2), a team whose major weakness -- pass defense -- is expected to be tested often by talented Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana.

Montana completed 54 percent of his passes this season, threw 10 touchdowns and ran for six.

Houston allowed opponents an average of 200 yards a game through the air and a 51 percent completion average.

"But that can be misleading, too," Montana said, "because a lot of the pressure has to be applied by the front four, and they have the ability to control a game when they want to. Their people up front are very quick, and we've had problems against those kind of teams."

Houston linebacker Steve Bradham said the Cougars are very concerned about Notre Dame receiver Kris Haines, "The best split end we have ever seen," he said, and tailback Jerome Heaven, the leading rusher in Notre Dame history.

Notre Dame's defense must contend with a Houston veer offense that averaged 419 yards a game, 300 on the ground. Both totals were tops in the SWC.

Houston's Danny Davis has been called the finest veer quarterbvack in the country, and his statistics back up the statement. The 5-foot-11 senior gained 506 yards rushing, completed 50 percent of his passes, ran for five touchdowns and threw for nine, with only seven interceptions.

Houston also had two 1,000-yard runners in its backfield, a Southwest Conference record. Tailback Emmett King gained 1,122 yards and averaged six yards a carry. Fullback Randy Love picked up 1,047, with a five-yard average.

A year ago, in the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame's defense yielded 116 yards in 29 carries to Texas Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell in a 38-10 victory. Irish safety Joe Restic said the other day he is far more wary of Houston's versatile offense than he was about Texas and Campbeil.

"Houston does everything so well, while Texas relied a whole lot on one guy," he said. "Houston can hurt you any way at any given time.You might bottle them up for two or three quarters, and then, all of a sudden, they'll just break it wide open."

"Their veer is excellent," added All-America linebacker Bob Golia. "They'v just got so much talent. What kind of defense do we have for it? Well, we had 14 guys in the huddle in practice."

Houston has a counter for Golic.

"Maybe we can kidnap him," said King.

Bill Yeoman, the Houston coach, conceded, "We've got to plug some holes on our defense. If we don't, we're going to have to do something miraculous on offense. I'm just hoping to slow Notre Dame down a little."

Even though the game is not going to crown a national champion, both coaches insisted their teams are not taking it lightly.

"The people who, follow Notre Dame won't permit a casual approach," Yeoman said, "and I know our kids care a heck of a lot. It's serious business for both teams."

"If it doesn't mean anything when they put on that gold helmet," added Devine, "then they ought to have their fannies back home. If we had that kind of attitude, we wouldn't be here." CAPTION: Picture, Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana aims to give Houston's weakness -- pass defense -- a stiff test today in Dallas.