Bobby Collins didn't gamble and he didn't lose today, as his Southern Methodist Mustangs tied Arkansas, 17-17, to win a place in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day.

"Although the outcome gave us what we wanted most . . . we can't really call it a victory," Collins said. But the coach said he never seriously considered going for a two-point conversion after an SMU touchdown with 2:51 left narrowed Arkansas' lead to 17-16. Jeff Harrell kicked the point.

"We hoped our defense would stop them and give us the ball back," Collins said. "It almost worked out."

But a 52-yard field goal try with one second left by Harrell, who had made a career-record 49-yarder today, was short and wide.

On the sidelines in Texas Stadium, the Mustangs cheered anyway, having closed the regular season unbeaten (10-0-1) and clinched the Southwest Conference championship and the Cotton bid with an SWC record of 7-0-1. Arkansas, with a game left, is 5-1-1 in the SWC and 8-1-1 all told.

But the tie by the No. 2-ranked Mustangs left No. 1 Georgia the only major unbeaten-untied team.

"The national championship crossed my mind," Collins said, "but our goal each year is to win the conference . . . "

It will be the Mustangs' first Cotton Bowl appearance since 1967. SMU won the Southwest Conference last year, but missed the postseason because of probation. Although still on probation, the Mustangs will be allowed to meet Pitt on New Year's Day in Dallas.

Arkansas will play in the Bluebonnet Bowl on Dec. 31.

"You don't know whether to be up or down," said SMU's Eric Dickerson, who became the leading rusher in the history of the Southwest Conference today, surpassing Earl Campbell's career record of 4,443 yards. Dickerson has 4,448.

"We didn't want to lose this game and go to some other bowl," Dickerson said.

SMU had to scramble even to accomplish that. The Mustangs got a crucial break late in the fourth quarter that allowed them to extend their unbeaten streak to 15 games.

It was a controversial pass interference call against Arkansas' Nathan Jones, who officials said had blocked SMU's Jackie Wilson from getting to the ball thrown by quarterback Lance McIlhenny. It was a 40-yard gain to Arkansas' 17. From there, SMU moved in for the tie.

"It was offensive pass interference all the way," Arkansas Coach Lou Holtz said.

Wilson had a different view. "I could have swerved off," Wilson said. "I thought about it. But I had to stay on my side to make it look like I was going for the ball. I thought, 'I've got to get an interference call out of it.' "

"I thought it was on Wilson," Jones said. "Neither one of us could have caught it (the ball), but I would have caught it before he would."

Until that penalty, Arkansas appeared headed for an upset. The Razorbacks' defense, which shut out three teams this year and held three others to six points or fewer, contained Dickerson and SMU's other powerful tailback, Craig James, holding the so-called Pony Express duo to a total of 157 yards on 33 carries, far below their 240-yard combined average this season.

"We did what we set out to do," said Billy Ray Smith, Arkansas' star defensive end. "We didn't let them have the 50- or 60-yard runs."

SMU's only lead came in the third quarter, on Harrell's 49-yard field goal. By period's end, the game was even again, 10-10, on Smith's 27-yard field goal.

Arkansas took a 17-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter, driving 77 yards in 15 plays.

At that point, Holtz said, he considered going for a two-point conversion. "Given the circumstances, I'd kick it every time and let SMU, which was going for a national championship, make the decision."