In the imperfect and, thankfully, unfair world of college football, five schools consider themselves best. And Notre Damers might barge right into the No. 1 debate, as always because they only lost three times and won a major bowl game with Divine, if not Devine, guidance.

The arguments that rage from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Los Angeles, from Norman, Okla., to State College, Pa., and, yes, even Clemson, S.C., are the sort of interest-stimulators more useful to the semiamateur game than a national championship playoff.

Having insisted that nobody knows the top team and that nobody ought to reorder already teetering educational priorities to find out, the proper move now is to switch from real-world logic to SportsThought, to catch that bolt of wisdom that strikes now and then and say:

Alabama is No. 1.

I'll roll with the Tide and I'll accept comment only from Oklahomans. Clemson might well be able to beat the best of the rest, but it played almost no team of note during an 11-1 season.

Southern California? The Trojans had an acceptable enough case before the bowls. They had the same record -- one loss -- as Alabama, and had won their regular-season game in Birmingham by 10 points. But USC has nnot beaten Michigan yet, regardless of what the official Rose Bowl score may indicate.

Every bit of significant evidence screams that the next endangered species, the two-legged zebra, anticipated that since Charles White dived into the end zone he'd naturally brought the ball along.

He had not. Michigan pried it loose long before the goal line and revovered. No one but the most rosecolored innocent could help but laugh at White's explanation: "I saw an official signal touchdown out of the corner of my eye and let go of the ball."

Never mix zebras and wolverines, Charles.

The on-any-given day jinx keeps the Sooners from being No. 1. They whipped the team that beat them in the Orange Bowl rematch. But Alabama already had beaten that Nebraska team -- soundly.

As Nebraska scored the final touchdown in the final seconds, the NBC camera caught Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer in a telling pose. He had won, 31-24, but he was not smiling as widely as the situation demananded.

Had Switzer at the moment realized he'd also lost? That is possible in these subjective matters. Teams can win and lose at the same time. With the Poll Souls, who you beat often is not as important as by how much, and Switzer is the nation's run-it-up champ.

What happened Monday was that Alabama beat a better team than Oklahoma beat, although Penn State's cemented posiktions as No. 1 going into the Sugar Bowl had begun to develop cracks three days before Christmas.

That was when the once fifthranked Maryland team that Penn State had embarrassed got kicked aside like ancient cactus by Texas in the sun Bowl. One by one, foes that went bowling seemed to throw strikes against Penn State's credibility.

Pitt lost badly in the Tangerine Bowl, although to a team the Lions also had beaten, North Carolina State. And Ohio State lost to Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

So why was Joe Paterno smiling? Because the team had practiced extremely well and he had spied at least two weaknesses in the 'Bama defense, he said.

Bear Bryant also must have seen them, for they were corrected Monday in New Orleans. Probably, Bear exposed some other weaknesses in the process, but Paterno and his thinkers were unable to adjust to the adjustments.

The fossil who cannot seem to breathe without three state troopers surrounding him had blurred one of football's brightest minds. And his players were splendid. Entire teams had not rushed for half the yardage Tony Nathan gained against Penn State.

The Tide also knew how to have fun when the game had ended. Defensive lineman David Hannah, referring to the Irish leaping over second-rated Alabama after the bowls a year ago, could not keep from laughing and saying:

"Maybe God thought the Protestants should win this year. Or maybe we had more Catholics on the team this year."

Bear already had won four of these top-team feuds over the years, so he had his squint firmly trained on a much more cosmic matter -- becoming the winningest coach in collegiate history.

Now Bryant needs only 31 victories to pass Amos Alonzo Stagg, who won one more game than Pop Warner. And he should have little trouble coaxing the swiftest and strongest young players to come join him in the history books.

Bryant said the first person he told of his intentions to go for Stagg's record was a prospect in South Florida. Which means he still has his priorities in proper order. And his mind is sharp enough either to outwit Paterno or hire someone for the job.

But his influence is not as legendary as everyone suspected. Yesterday, as part of UPI's board of coaches, Bryant voted his team No. 1. But his colleagues, in a move that will fuel already hot tempers, chose USC as their top team.

Only a collection of coaches could move a team that, in reality, failed to win past a team that beat an unbeaten team soundly. There is one form of reasoning even worse than SportsThought; it is CoachThought.