Because no conference champions automatically qualify, the Fiesta Bowl has been a game in search of an identity. But it finally may have one, as the showcase of premier running backs.

Last year much of the pregame hoopla was centered around Marcus Allen of Southern California, the 1981 Heisman Trophy winner. But Allen was outplayed by another runner, Curt Warner of Penn State.

Saturday's game features another Marcus--freshman Marcus Dupree of Oklahoma. He already is a leading candidate for the 1984 and 1985 Heisman, assuming Georgia's Herschel Walker stays in school to win it again next season. Dupree, massive (6 feet 3, 235 pounds) with speed, leads a typically crunching Sooner running game that is ranked second nationally, against the stingiest NCAA Division I defensive team, Arizona State. Kickoff is 1:30 p.m. (EST) at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU's home field.

Football aficionados might find fascination in the offense-versus-defense matchup. Or, that ASU is in a New Year's Day bowl for the first time. The school left the Western Athletic Conference for the Pacific-10 Conference in 1978 but has been on conference and NCAA probation the last two years, plus the 1982 regular season. ASU has not appeared on national television since 1976.

On a grander scale, however, this 12th Fiesta Bowl has been awaited with far less anticipation than last year's game, the first Fiesta Bowl played on New Year's Day, with a dream pairing.

Then it was two glamor teams, USC and Penn State, plus such stars as Allen, Warner, quarterback Todd Blackledge, linebacker Chip Banks and linemen Sean Farrell and Roy Foster. Not to mention the charismatic coaches, John Robinson of USC and Penn State's Joe Paterno.

A tough act to follow. No one knows the Sun Devils because they haven't been on television this year or last. Oklahoma is talented, but its brightest personality is offensive guard Steve Williams, a 6-1, 290-pound senior with flowing hair and a bushy black beard who wrestles professionally as "Dr. Death."

This Fiesta Bowl almost can be viewed as a consolation game. Oklahoma (8-3) lost to Nebraska for the Big Eight championship, thereby missing a chance to play in Miami's Orange Bowl. The Sun Devils won their first nine games and had two shots at winning the Pac-10 championship and going to the Rose Bowl. But twice they failed, losing to Washington, then Arizona.

"Of course we'd prefer to be in Miami and ASU would prefer to be in Pasadena," Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said after stepping off the plane that brought his team here. "But that didn't happen." One nearly expected the yellow blazers of assembled Fiesta Bowl officials to turn crimson with mortification.

ASU Coach Darryl Rogers, who had labeled his team's season "tarnished after the loss to Arizona," has lately seen the brighter side.

"We're looking at this as a celebration of the end of probation," said Rogers, finally making it to a significant bowl game in his 18th season as a college head coach.

The Sun Devils' defense has superb overall speed, allowing just 228 yards a game this year. But it relied heavily on the blitz in the pass-oriented Pac-10. Oklahoma passes as often as Halley's Comet appears and the Sooners are expected to pound away at the Sun Devils, who have played primarily run-oriented opponents.

Dupree, the player around whom Switzer de-emphasized the wishbone attack for the I-formation, presents ASU a challenge the Sun Devils have not yet encountered. Despite a slow start, Dupree gained 905 yards in 129 carries, an average of seven yards a rush, and scored 13 touchdowns.

"He's got a little magic about him, like all great backs," Switzer said.