So who's No. 1, Alabama or undefeated Cal? Alabama is the defending national champion who went undefeated this season. But Southern Cal today beat a No. 1 team, Ohio State, and maybe such a victory makes a No. 3 team into the national champion. Who knows? We can only wait until the voting is done the day after the bowl games.

Which is silly.

There ought to be a national championship playoff system.

As brilliant, debonair and handsome as most sportswriters are, we are in no position to really know which college football team is best. That's because we see the good teams maybe twice a year, probably on television, which distorts and conceals. The Associated Press poll is of sportswriters and sportscasters.

The United Press International, wanting to be different from AP, uses a 35-man board of noted coaches to do its voting. The coaches see fewer teams than we itinerant typists. And both the coaches and media types are susceptible to regional prejudices, there being only one man in 1 million who is not provincial in giving away his favors.

So if it is important to decide who is the champion of a college sport -- and the NCAA decides champions with tournaments in every varsity sport except football -- then leaving it up to microphones and whistles is silly.

The arguments in favor of the status quo are familiar: 1) a playoff system would disrupt the present bowl structure, which produces millions of dollars for the colleges; 2) a playoff system would extend the college season even longer than its current 12 games, thereby taking these future Einsteins out of the classrooms too long; 3) coaches are under too much pressure now and they would get fired every year if the world truly knew their team was not No. 1; and 4) this way, we can argue all winter about who is really No. 1.

Of these arguments, this can be said: Piffwaddle.

Even with a playoff system, everyone will yet get to argue. It's the American way. The Redskins aren't No. 1 in the Eastern Division of the National Conference. But U.S. Del. Walter Fauntroy (:-D.C.) still may be jabbering into the night about how his constituents were robbed in order to please Pete Rozelle.

Coaches get fired without a playoff system. Charlie McClendon of LSU won 70 percent of his games for 18 years, but he was fired for not winning either the UPI or AP championship.

The playoff system to be proposed here would extend the season for only four teams each year, extending it one week for all of them, two weeks for two of them. Somehow, when the schools realize they can make a few million more dollars this way, they will discover their Einsteins in shoulder pads can make up the work later.

The playoff system to be proposed here would not hurt the current bowl structure because that structure is essential to the system.

Today's four major bowl games -- the Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange -- would continue to choose their teams as they wish.

But then the winners of those games would go into a four-team tournament with a double-header the next week -- the games to be played in each bowl on a rotating basis from year to year.

Winners in the doubleheader then would meet for the national championship in the pro's Super Bowl city on the Saturday before the NFL championship game.

Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach, wants a playoff system because he believes the nation's universities can use the money. He would pay the championship contenders a flat fee (his plan calls for the obvious top two teams from the bowl games to meet in a single game affair.) That way, with the finalists getting only a small fraction of the revenue generated, the national championship game would not grossly enrich the already rich.

Paterno would establish a foundation of sorts to handle the money from such a playoff. The foundation would be charged with responsibility for giving away the money to universities with needs they cannot meet with ordinary income. With the full implementation of Title IX's mandatory spending for women's sports, all colleges are looking for ways to get money.

Money, money, money. It makes college football go 'round. As soon as the colleges figure a way to have a playoff without killing off the bowls, it will be done. Forget the idealism of student-athletes and forget the romance of raccoon coats.

This is business. A coach admits complicity in fixing grades at Arizona State; two or three weeks later he is hired at Illinois as -- get this -- "assistant director of player personnel." Money, money, money.

The colleges don't care. If they did, they would kick in 10 times as much money to make the NCAA a respectable police force against violations. The NCAA enforcers are a joke. They are a joke because the schools don't care if ethics take a beating, as long as football and basketball bring in money.

So they are afraid to tamper with the bowl structure because it might cost them money. And because there is no playoff, we argue about who is No. 1.And with voters to impress, even a team as wonderful as Alabama has to do silly things to impress the voters. Look at today's game.

The only way Alabama could lose the Sugar Bowl with 3:40 to go ahead 24/9 was to do something really dumb. Bear Bryant had the ball on his own 48-yard line. Arkansas needed two touchdowns to win.

So Alabama did something really dumb.

Quarterback Steadman Shealy, on first down, threw a pass far toward the end zone. If Arkansas intercepted, it still had a chance to win, perhaps by returning the interception for a touchdown and then scoring another on its last possession. Or maybe the Razorbacks could score on two long drives. i

In any case, the only way Alabama could lose is by throwing away the ball. And yet Shealy wound up and threw on first down, the pass falling incomplete.

Did Alabama feel a need to run the score to 31-9 to build up its case for No. 1? Ohio State would not lose for another three hours.

"The 15 points (by which Alabama won) tickled me to death," Bryant said. "One would have been enough for me."

Someone asked the quarterback, Shealy, why he was gunning for another touchdown.

"We wanted to score, we didn't want to sit on it," he said.

Bryant sends in the Alabama plays. Why go deep when it's the only way to lose?

"Coach Bryant only knows," Shealy said.

For punctuation, the quarterback winked.