Joe Paterno said that Penn State's victory over Southern California in the Fiesta Bowl gave the Nittany Lions a claim to No. 1. Buck Belue, Georgia's quarterback, said the Pittsburgh team that beat the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl was better than Clemson. And Clemson Coach Danny Ford looked around and said, "Anybody else besides us play 12 folks and beat 'em all?"

No.

That is why when the final polls were released today, Clemson, which began playing football in 1896, officially became the national champion for the first time in its history.

The rest of the Associated Press top 10 is: Texas (10-1-1) after its come-from-behind victory over Alabama in the Cotton Bowl; followed by Penn State and Pittsburgh, 11-1 for the third straight season. Then come SMU (10-1), which is on probation; Georgia (10-2); Alabama (9-2-1); Miami (9-2), which is also on probation; North Carolina (10-2) and Washington (10-2).

The AP rankings are determined by the votes of sportswriters and sportscasters. Forty-seven of the 49 voters picked Clemson No. 1; the other two votes went to Penn State and SMU.

UPI had Pitt second, followed by Penn State, Texas and Georgia. The two teams on probation were ineligible for the coaches' poll.

Clemson also was awarded the MacArthur Bowl by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Awards Committee.

The Tigers clinched the championship by proving they were the better team in their 22-15 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska Friday night. With the game at stake in the fourth quarter, Clemson stopped Nebraska's offense, took the ball back and did not relinquish it until six seconds were left.

"People said the Atlantic Coast Conference couldn't play football, that when Nebraska hit you they said, 'Welcome to the Big Eight,'" said Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle. "Well, they never did say anything. In fact, we were doing the talking. I kept saying, 'Look out, here we come.' "

Clemson moved into the top 20 after its third victory, then climbed steadily, reaching No. 1 when Pittsburgh became the sixth top-ranked team of the season to lose on Nov. 28. The Tigers came here with the Cinderella label, a team that still had something to prove. And, even though the game lasted forever, midnight never struck in the Orange Bowl.

Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne had shown the proper public respect toward Clemson all week. But in the early hours of New Year's morning, one Nebraska assistant coach sipped a glass of champagne and declared, "We're just too strong for them. Who have they ever played, Wofford?"

That attitude may have been felt by the Nebraska players, who grudgingly admitted afterward that Clemson surprised them with its strength. The Cornhusker players also grumbled about six major penalties, two of them holding calls against Outland Trophy winner Dave Rimington.

Osborne was left with the prospect of returning home to face fans who could not understand how the Cornhuskers came up short against a team many of them have never heard of, especially with a national championship at stake.

"Expectations, being the favorite, affects your fans," Osborne said today. "I imagine I'll hear about this when I get home from people who won't be able to understand how we lost."

"They were cocky," Clemson linebacker Jeff Davis said. "You could tell that at the beginning."

At the end, Clemson was the only unbeaten, untied major college team of 1981. What will come next for the Tigers is hard to tell. They are being investigated by the NCAA and could be on probation by the time next season starts.

Today, Ford snapped when someone asked about the investigation. "I don't have to talk about that . . . anymore," he said. "I couldn't say that before, but I can say it now."

One team that cracked the final top 20 is West Virginia (9-3) on the strength of its impressive 26-6 Peach Bowl victory over Florida. The Mountaineers finished 17th in the AP poll, 18th in UPI.

Florida is coached by Charley Pell. The Gators finished 7-5 this season. Three years ago, Pell left Clemson for Florida, partly because he believed Clemson could not win a national championship since it was not well known and because of its association with the ACC--a basketball conference.

Which brings back one final memory. It was a warm October night and Danny Ford, his dinner finished, shoved a piece of chewing tobacco into his mouth and put his feet up on a chair in the team's dining room on the Clemson campus.

A visitor asked him what question he would ask Danny Ford.

Ford shifted in his chair for a moment, leaned across the table and said softly, "I'd ask him, 'Do you really believe it can happen at Clemson?' "

The visitor asked the question.

Ford smiled. "Sure I believe it. There's not a whole lot of folks out there ever heard of Clemson. But these youngsters believe in themselves. They've won seven and they think they can win five more.

"Sometimes, I ask myself, 'Can it really all come true?' Then I just nod my head and say, 'It sure can.' "

Now, it has.