Nearly as controversial as which team sits weekly atop the two major college football polls -- the Associated Press and the United Press International -- are the criteria employed by writers and coaches involved in the selection process.

What makes college football polls especially significant is the lack of a postseason tournament to establish a national champion.

Since 1936, the AP has polled sportswriters and sportscasters who cover college football on a weekly basis to determine the nation's top 20 football teams. Herschel Nissenson, the news service's college football editor, tabulates the 60 ballots each week. He said the AP has only two guidelines.

"We want people who cover college football on a regular basis," Nissenson said. "And we ask that they don't discriminate against teams on probation." Unlike the AP, the UPI (coaches' poll) does not rank teams on probation.

There still is room for variation, based usually on the set of criteria each writer in the AP selection process uses.

After 11 weeks of college football and 12 polls determining the top 20 teams, Brigham Young -- despite contentions that its schedule is not strong and that the Western Athletic Conference is substantially weaker than the Big Eight and the Southeastern Conference -- became the fifth team this season to occupy the No. 1 spot.

"If you want criteria, you have to go to the individual voters," Nissenson said. "And, obviously, this week more people think being unbeaten is more important than schedules."

In a survey of approximately one-third of the AP's voters by The Washington Post, those polled said records, schedule difficulty, voters' subjectivity, timing of losses and provincialism figured in the voting. But, warns Tim May of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, "Writers are weird. They vote on teams for the strangest reasons."

Chuck Amadie, who covers Southern Mississippi football for the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American, was among the 40 who voted Brigham Young No. 1 this week. "First of all, they're undefeated," said Amadie. "When a team goes undefeated they're deserving of it. Especially when they're the only one."

Amadie examines schedule strength, "but I don't look at that as much as I did six or seven years ago. Parity has opened the door for BYU."

Harold Bechard of the Salina (Kan.) Journal was one of the seven voters who gave the No. 1 spot to Oklahoma. "I picked them basically because of their schedule," Bechard said. "They beat the No. 1 team (Nebraska, 17-7) at their home place with a great goal line stand. It showed a lot of character. I don't think there are are too many teams in the country who could have stopped Nebraska twice, on the one-yard line, in Lincoln, in front of 75,000 screaming fans."

Bechard picked BYU fourth, Oklahoma State second and Florida third. "BYU would probably finish fourth in the Big Eight," he said. "They'd probably have trouble in the Southeastern Conference, also."

"I put Oklahoma No. 1 this week," said May. "I have a good reason. Ohio State played BYU in the Holiday Bowl a few years ago when BYU supposedly had their best team ever. And Ohio State beat 'em like a drum. They dominated BYU with a mediocre team."

Rick Bonnell covers Syracuse football for the Syracuse Herald-Journal. He doesn't believe that considerations of a team's difficulty of schedule or margin of victory should outweigh a perfect season.

"I voted for BYU in the AP poll and I voted for them the week before. There's a lot to be said for winning 23 straight games. And they did play Pitt when Pitt was supposed to be such a great team."

One of the seven first-place votes for Florida was cast by Stan Pamfilis of WLOS-TV in Asheville, N.C. "I've seen them play, and they just plain dominate," he said.

Computerized polls, such as the one used by The New York Times, emphasize the strength of the opponent, as does Harley Bowers of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and News.

"I've studied the schedule and the teams they (BYU) play are so poor," said Bowers, who gave his 20 first-place points to Florida. "I've figured their record and it's 50-53-3. Seven have a losing record, one has a .500 record and the others are 6-5-1, 6-4 and 6-3."

Timing of losses is also significant. "It's a 'what have you done for me lately' poll," said Tom Shatel of the Kansas City Star.

South Carolina worked all season to earn its No. 2 ranking, but after a late-season loss to Navy fell precipitously to No. 9. "I had South Carolina No. 1 the week before," said Pamfilis. "They beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame and beat a good Georgia team, 17-10, and destroyed Florida State. They beat at least four quality teams. That's the one screwy thing. Why should they fall to nine?"

If AP's poll is a showcase for pluralism, it may also be a last front for sectionalism. The TV man in Salt Lake City votes for BYU. The executive sports editor of the Macon Telegraph and News talks more often to SEC coaches who think their league is the best.

"There's slight regionalism, but not as much as there used to be," said Nissenson, who started counting ballots in 1969.

To balance any regional effect, the AP polls three national correspondents: Sports Illustrated's Douglas S. Looney, ABC-TV's Keith Jackson and ESPN's Paul Maguire. "I do it with an open mind," said Maguire. "I've got a chance to see most teams. I use the knowledge of what I've seen."

The AP's poll is hardly scientific, so its decisiveness will always be questioned. "The polls are so subjective, it gets kind of ridiculous," concludes Shatel. "This whole season has been one big vote for a playoff system. There's going to be so many arguments on New Year's Day."