They're planning a big cotton pickin' party at the Hayride Kitchen in Shreveport, La., set for the very moment the Air Force and Virginia Tech teams step off their chartered buses. Yeah, boy! The good people of the Independence Bowl are putting together a feed bound to tantalize the most sophisticated of Cajun palates.

Friday, the day before the game, in keeping with the bowl's tradition of bons temps rouler, three men in capes and goggles will jump from the belly of an airplane and drop through cloudy pastures with sacks slung over their shoulders. Troopers armed with mudbugs. Heading straight for a swim.

Pipin' hot and jumpin' out the pot.

Crawfish, ya'll! Boiled. Yeah, boy!

"This'll happen out by the Expo Hall, in the parking lot," Penny Lee, who helped organize the entertainment, said the other day. "I don't know how long the crawfish'll last. But once they go, we'll have fried fish, hush puppies and cole slaw. I can't wait . . . You think ya'll'll be able to come?"

Count on it. And count on this season of bowl games -- which begins Saturday with the Independence and California and extends through Jan. 1 with the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar -- to promise more than one big fis-do-do.

In Atlanta, for example, Peach Bowl officials are planning the South's largest New Year's Eve street party. A giant motorized peach will climb the facade of a high-rise building and, at midnight, reach its peak. The night will explode with a storm of fireworks. Down below on Peachtree Street, some of the 200 "hand-picked beauties" the bowl has rounded up from Georgia colleges will help entertain members of the Virginia and Purdue teams.

"We call the girls the Peachies," said Jeff Davis, the bowl's director of sales and marketing. "But we're not running a dating service. It was the brainchild of a public relations firm we hired to help promote the game. They said that whenever you have a lot of guys, it's important you have a lot of girls. But this is all above board. Everything, you should know, will be chaperoned."

The Sugar Bowl, played in New Orleans, will give Nebraska and LSU a ride on a Mississippi River paddle-wheel steamboat, which will disembark at dusk and feature Irma Thomas singing with an uptown jazz band. Later in the week, a great ballroom in a French Quarter hotel will be decorated for a Mardi Gras party, a good three months before the holiday usually is celebrated. Players will dress in costumes of bright silk and satin and throw cheap beads and doubloons at invited guests, and the champagne will flow. On top of that, there will be a buffet of Cajun and Creole food, and another -- for those with less discriminating tastes -- of steak and potatoes.

"One night we'll have the teams out for a Moulin Rouge or cancan or cabaret show at the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street," said Mickey Holmes, the Sugar Bowl's executive director. "Both teams will attend, then we'll let them loose in the Quarter. Pat O'Brien's is just up the street. Now you know they'll have a fine time."

Although the Sugar Bowl boasts of its superior hospitality, each bowl is limited by the NCAA as to just how far it can roll out the red carpet. According to Mike Glazier, assistant director of enforcement for the NCAA, the value of gifts presented each player cannot exceed $300. That's a sharp departure from the days when luxurious gifts were used by bowls to attract the year's most popular teams. In 1969, before a ceiling was put on the value of individual gifts, the Cotton Bowl presented each player with a Rolex watch now valued at more than $1,200.

The NCAA permits universities to give each athlete $10 a day for miscellaneous expenses over a period not to exceed 10 days. The only other way players come away with extra money is by skipping meals and taking the equivalent in cash. Those figures are prorated by the hotel bills, but some coaches insist their teams dine together, preventing players from eating cheap and pocketing the few dollars they might save. In all, players get very little when you consider the prodigious chunks of money the bowls give participating teams.

Mike Lude, the athletic director at the University of Washington and the head of the postseason football committee, said the Rose Bowl will pay Ohio State and USC almost $5.5 million each this year. But that sum will be cut considerably when members of both the Pacific-10 and Big Ten conferences receive their shares. The three other major bowls -- the Cotton, Sugar and Orange -- will pay each of their teams about $2 million. The other bowls generally pay between $500,000 and $1 million. But only independent schools such as Boston College and Notre Dame get the entire amount.

Although players receive little money to spend at night clubs and tourist stops, most bowls offer "goody bags" stuffed with gifts from local merchants. There are windbreakers and T-shirts and pullover sweaters and baseball caps dressed with the bowl's particular logo, and some bags include even headache powders and razor blades, suntan lotion and shoe laces.

The finest gift is usually a watch or a ring, presented at the awards banquet. But some bowls nearly match that with presents of 10-gallon cowboy hats and belt buckles and plaques. To be sure, players for those national powers that frequently appear in postseason games come away with no small cache of gold and silver.

Because gifts have become fairly uniform from bowl to bowl, the quality and diversity of entertainment offered by the bowls have become sources of immense pride. In fact, many bowls have contracted public relations firms to come up with ideas for better entertaining their esteemed guests.

With each bowl working almost maniacally to out-fun the others, the competition for remarkable and unprecedented ways to entertain has become a fierce battleground on which no one suffers but those required to carry on with a perpetual smile. Said Jim Brock, the director of the Cotton Bowl, "We don't have the beaches or the palm trees or the French Quarter, but we do have one helluva good time. Hospitality is our hallmark."

The itinerary Brock and his constituents have put together includes a trip to a dude ranch, a Willie Nelson concert, a night at Billy Bob's dance hall in Fort Worth and one at a Mavericks' basketball game, and a tour of South Fork ranch, where the TV show "Dallas" is filmed.

This year the Orange Bowl, which features Oklahoma and Washington in what may turn out to be the national championship game, will take both teams out for dinner on an ocean cruiser. The night on the Gulf Stream probably will replace the skeet shooting and bass fishing at "The Big, Wild, Hog Barbecue" held previous years. Four years ago, Wade Traeuner, a defensive end for Nebraska, met the niece of Harper Davidson at the great cookout. Davidson, as a member of the Orange Bowl committee, had helped coordinate the entertainment schedule, and he'd invited Natalie to attend the party.

"It was at the Indian Creek Country Club," Davidson said, with a touch of pride in his voice. "There's tennis and golf and any number of things to do out there, but Wade and Natalie seemed to get along really well and spent some time together. She was a student at Florida State at the time, but they kept in touch, through letters and by the telephone.

"Now they're married and have a little baby, and all because of that meeting at the Orange Bowl . . . I guess sometimes you get more than a watch or a ring when you play in these games. Sometimes you get a wife."

A few years back, Orange Bowl officials set up a tour for their guests of a Seminole Indian village in the Everglades. "We'd take them down there to a reservation and a certain group of men who wrestled alligators for tourists," said John Ludwig, who heads an entertainment committee. "We'd get some of the gentlemen wrestlers to show a couple of big linemen how to take care of themselves in the ring with those giant gators, and they'd go at it. Man, they loved that."

One of the true "party games" is the Sun Bowl in El Paso, where Maryland will play Tennessee just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. A mariachi band greets the teams as they deplane at the airport, and women shuffle around clicking castanets and trying to get players to dance with them. A sheriff's posse breakfast with stagecoach rides begins the week of entertainment, but nothing compares with the wild nights across the border. Players blow their spending money drinking margaritas and placing bets at the dog races, or buying sombreros and jackets and assorted leather goods at the open markets.

A party of officials from both schools will be treated to the bullfights in Juarez, and players will eat barbecue at Cattleman's, an Old West-style restaurant nestled against the steamy edge of the badlands.

"A guy out there parks cars on his horse," said Donnie Duncan, the bowl's director. "Everybody gets there early to watch the sun go down. It's like nothing you've ever seen."

Sometimes the benefits players receive live in memory long after the barbecue has been digested and the watches have stopped ticking. Several years ago, President Jimmy Carter decided to attend the Sugar Bowl game, and the White House requested 25 tickets for his entourage. That number quickly grew to 150, which caused a bit of a problem for director Holmes.

"They parked their motorcade at the south end of the Superdome," Holmes recalled. "There were cars everywhere, and everything was blocked in. They indicated to us that they'd leave with five minutes remaining in the game, but the game turned out to be a shootout, and no one in his right mind would have left the arena. The president decided to stay till the end, and then when it was over, he decided to go down to the Georgia dressing room and congratulate the star of the day, Herschel Walker.

"In the meantime, a great majority of the crowd had to stay in the Superdome. There were people all over the field. For security reasons, and because of the motorcade, there was no way anybody was leaving the place.

"Then the president decided he wanted to meet Walker's parents, and it seemed to take forever to find them in the crowd. There was well over 70,000, and it was tough. The toughest bowl I ever knew. But it was special and exciting. It meant a lot to everyone involved, and I always thought that's what bowls were all about."