One week ago, Doug Flutie lost his football helmet. It was big news. Then, he got the helmet back. More big news.

Friday, Flutie went to a dude ranch. That was big news. Saturday, he went to a country-western bar in Fort Worth and rode a mechanical bull. The headlines screamed again.

Sunday, Cotton Bowl officials held a press conference. The announcement on a bulletin board read, "Press conference with Doug Flutie and others."

That phrase best describes Tuesday's 49th annual Cotton Bowl (WDVM-TV-9, 1:30 p.m.). The game program might say Boston College (9-2) vs. Houston (7-4), but to most this game is, simply, "Doug Flutie and others."

Flutie, the diminutive Heisman trophy winner who has captured the country's imagination, owns this town. Today, the Dallas Morning News' Cotton Bowl section had a cover photo of Flutie, in white top hat and white tails, with the tag line reading, "DOUG FLUTIE in the Cotton Bowl Story . . . Coming Jan. 1."

Like the true star he is, Flutie has his name above the title in larger lettering than the title of the show. "All I really want to do," Flutie said Sunday, "is play well in the game."

Ah, yes, the game. The presence of Houston and its four losses usually would make this a big New Year's Day yawn. In fact, the presence of the unranked Cougars here has so offended the locals that one columnist compared them to unwanted cockroaches.

But because Flutie and others -- also known as eighth-ranked Boston College -- provide the opposition, Cotton Bowl officials are hoping for one of their best TV ratings ever. In the past five years, the Cotton Bowl has never finished higher than third in the ratings among the big bowls. That could change this year.

"Once we got Flutie," Cotton Bowl Executive Director Jim (Hoss) Brock said, "It really didn't matter who the Southwest Conference representative was."

Welcome to the Flutie Bowl.

If the weather is horrid -- there are predictions for sleet, possibly some snow and at least some rain for New Year's -- this should be a game with a lot of offense. Flutie completed 60.4 percent of his passes, threw for 27 touchdowns and led Boston College to an average of almost 37 points a game. But the Eagles' defense is suspect. It gave up 24 points a game and, against a Houston veer that is run by talented sophomore quarterback Gerald Landry, might give up points.

In short, Houston isn't likely to shut down Flutie and Boston College isn't likely to stop Houston. What was that score in the rain in Miami?

"We'll have to have an up day defensively to stop Houston and our defense has had its ups and downs," Boston College Coach Jack Bicknell said. "Their offense has been hard to stop, especially the second half of the season."

That second half is what put Houston in this game. There is no mystery as to why Boston College is here: Flutie. Houston, however, needed all sorts of twists and turns to get here. The Cougars, mediocre the past two years (5-5-1, 4-7), actually trashed for a couple of games the veer offense that Coach Bill Yeoman devised in the 1960s when he was building the Houston program.

But after losing to lowly Louisville, they returned to it. After beating Southern Methodist and Texas and, with some help from Baylor (which beat Texas), the Cougars are here.

Understandably, they are a little upset about being treated a bit like Cinderella before Prince Charming showed up. No one wants them at this ball.

"People are doing a lot of talking about Flutie all over the place," Houston defensive back Randy Thornton said. "Well, I'm impressed with him but he's nothing to jump over the moon over. I've seen Willie Totten (of Mississippi Valley State) play this year and he's better than Flutie."

Added backfield partner Audrey McMillian: "Flutie is very quick, but there are quarterbacks in our conference who can deliver the ball just as well as he can."

Houston's belief that it is being slighted is understandable. This is a school with a history of it. The Cougars have played football for only 37 years and, until Yeoman arrived in 1962, had never played in a bowl game.

Coming up with the veer in 1965 not only saved his job then, but eventually led to Emory Bellard's devising of the wishbone. From that point on, the Cougars became a force. Still, if they had not been admitted to the Southwest Conference in 1976, Yeoman believes the sport would not have survived at the urban school.

In nine years, Houston has made it to the Cotton Bowl four times. That doesn't thrill the conference, which would prefer to see more traditional powers such as Texas and Arkansas play in the New Year's Day showcase. That is particularly true this year. Given Houston's record, if it hadn't tied for the SWC title and earned this bid, it probably would not have gone to a bowl.

"We know all that," said Yeoman, who has coached at Houston longer (23 seasons) than any other active coach has been at a single school. "But these kids worked very hard to get here and I think we'll play well on Tuesday.

"The key for us, though, is simple: keep that young man off the field as much as possible."

That young man is America's latest superhero. No one else in the history of major college football has delivered the ball as often or for as many yards or as electrically as Flutie. He has done it with verve and guts. At 5 feet 9, he has shattered the myths about size and he has smiled and laughed and remained accessible.

He is bright enough and articulate enough to understand why people react to him the way they do.

"I think people perceive me as the underdog," he said. "I'm the underdog doing well. I'm the small guy, the guy next door, and I'm making it big. People like that. They cling to it."

Certainly, people will cling to the memory of Flutie's miracle pass in the rain at Miami for years to come. And, just as certainly, the more than 20,000 Boston College fans who have poured into town for Flutie's final college game are hoping for one more memory.

Whether Flutie can pull off one more miracle, give college football one last moment to remember him by, spurs the interest in this game.

Those who see it might not in the future remember that it was the 1985 Cotton Bowl. They will definitely remember it was Doug Flutie's farewell.