A year ago, the national championship was decided in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska against Clemson. Big game, big crowd, big television ratings.

Saturday night, they'll play the Orange Bowl again, for the 49th time. Third-ranked Nebraska against 13th-ranked Louisiana State. Big yawn for most of of America, which no doubt will focus instead on Penn State-Georgia in the Sugar Bowl at the same time and on a different network.

The Orange Bowl, starting at 8 (on WRC-TV-4), is carried by NBC (WRC-TV-4 in Washington), which insists that it is not that concerned about losing that much in the ratings to ABC and the Sugar Bowl.

"I don't know if it will be a drastic drop-off from what we did last year," said Tom Merritt, NBC's director of sports information. "If we've got a great Rose Bowl leading into the game, if their game is dull and ours is exciting, I think we'll do all right. But yes, it should be a little different for us than last year."

Orange Bowl officials, meanwhile, have other problems. Specifically, they are trying to play down three days of civil disturbances in Miami's Overtown district, less than eight blocks away from the Orange Bowl stadium, that left two people dead and 26 injured.

"It's all over now and we anticipate no problems," Orange Bowl President Charles Kimball said today. "And that area around the stadium will be so safe and secure, the Russian army couldn't get in. I don't think anyone need fear anything."

The live gate has also been off. Nebraska returned 2,300 of its 12,500 allocated tickets and, on Friday, the game was about 3,000 seats short of selling out. There has only been one other nonsellout in the Orange Bowl in the last 20 years--in 1977, when Colorado played Ohio State.

Still, the seeming lack of national interest in this game clearly does not bother the participants.

"A lot of us still remember what happened to us here last year," said Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill, who was injured and did not play in his team's 22-15 loss to Clemson. "We didn't play very well--I didn't play at all--and we all remember that. We'd like to look good and show people what kind of team we've got."

Nebraska also has an extremely outside shot at winning the national title. If Penn State and Georgia tie and the Cornhuskers win, Coach Tom Osborne believes his team should be voted the national champion. "People keep saying we've got to beat LSU by a lot of points for that to happen," Osborne said. "I'd like to think that a victory by one point would be enough, but the whole thing is highly unlikely. It's not what we've been stressing. We'd just like to win the game."

LSU, a team that came back from a 3-7-1 season a year ago, also is simply delighted to be playing in its first major New Year's Day game since the 1973 Orange Bowl. "You bet we're happy to be here," said Jerry Stovall, LSU's third-year coach, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals. "Nobody from our school is complaining."

At least not until they began looking at films of a Nebraska team that led the nation in total offense, rushing and scoring in winning its second Big Eight title. The Cornhuskers are favored by 10 1/2 points over LSU.

But this apparent mismatch does not seem to publicly concern Stovall, a man who says, "Crisis motivates one of two things out of you--success or failure . . .It's much easier in a big fight to hit harder against a guy with a big stick. And Nebraska's got the biggest stick we've played since I've been here."

Nebraska relies primarily on its running backs for its yards and points and had six gain at least 400 yards this season.

The best of the backs is junior Mike Rozier, a 5-foot-11, 210-pounder from Camden, N.J. Rozier gained 1,689 yards, averaged seven yards a carry and scored 15 touchdowns this year.

"'Course, I got some big boys up there ahead of me," he said. "If you had Dave Rimington blocking for you, you'd be all-America, too."

Nebraska's offensive line is anchored by Rimington, the 6-3, 290-pound senior center and two-time Outland Trophy winner.

Gill, the quarterback, is a threat to run (582 yards) or throw (11 touchdown passes and a 54 percent completion rate).

The Tigers, led by senior quarterback Alan Risher, averaged 33 points and 412 yards a game. Risher holds 22 school passing records. He completed 64 percent of his throws this season, had 17 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

LSU also has two fabulous freshmen running backs--Dalton Hilliard (901 yards in 193 carries) and Garry James (710 in 145 carries).

The Tigers were fourth in total defense, giving up 246 yards a game. Nebraska is no slouch on defense either. The Cornhuskers allowed only 11 points a game this season, third best in the country.

"I think the difference is that we've got the advantage in quickness with our backs and wide people, but they're bigger up front than anything we've seen this year," said Risher, a physics and chemistry major who added, "I'd like to think I've got a little intelligence, too."

Stovall believes brute force rather than brains will settle this game. "I think it's going to be a real physical football game, two teams just teeing off on one another," he said. "Contact game, yes sir. 'Course, if Nebraska scores their average (41 a game) we're in a world of trouble."