With all their hearts, with all their souls and with all their might, the people at the core of the Orange Bowl -- the coaches, the organizers and the network executives -- tried to peddle their game between Oklahoma and Washington as the one, true, legitimate battle for the national championship.


Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma coach who so obviously lusted for the No. 1 ranking, was always available to denigrate the quality of Brigham Young's conference and schedule, while boosting his own. Switzer called BYU's opponents "Puddins," and giggled when he said so. NBC, which paid more than $2 million for the rights to the Orange Bowl and was loathe to admit it was presenting something less than Masterpiece Theatre, began its broadcast by telling viewers that its survey of those who vote in the AP poll indicated that the national championship was still very much undecided, and that Oklahoma would likely win it if the Sooners beat Washington by at least two touchdowns.

Needless to say, the Sooners didn't win by two touchdowns; they didn't win at all. They made a bunch of sloppy mistakes and were even victimized by a ludicrous one: a 15-yard penalty assessed when the "Sooner Schooner" -- the pony-drawn covered wagon the OU students drive onto the field to celebrate their scores -- got out there a bit sooner than it should have, causing the referee to lower the boomer on the Schooner. By getting its hands on the ball at the right moments and by keeping its dog off the field at the wrong ones, the Washington Huskies won the game, 28-17.

Switzer, who had said all week that Washington wasn't as good as Nebraska, and that Nebraska -- a team Oklahoma had already beaten -- was the best team in the country, looked up at the scoreboard and said, "Washington is the best team we've played. Washington deserves to be No. 1. They're more talented, they're a better team than Brigham Young, I promise you that."

With Switzer on his side, Don James, the Washington coach who looks like a priest in a Bing Crosby movie and who rarely says anything more controversial than "Please pass the salt," took the bold step and announced, "I think we're No. 1."

It's swell that Switzer and James agree that a team that wasn't good enough to win its own conference is good enough to win the national championship.

Swell. But wrong.

BYU is No. 1.

At 13-0, BYU is the only unbeaten major college team.

People such as Switzer keep asking: Whom did BYU beat?

Hey, who beat BYU?

Southern Cal beat Washington, 16-7, for the championship of the Pac-10; Kansas embarrassed Oklahoma, 28-11; Syracuse shocked Nebraska, 17-9. Even Florida -- which has the best team money can buy and therefore had a considerable advantage over opponents, if any, that didn't cheat -- lost once and was tied once. They all stumbled. BYU didn't. And anyway, none of them, not Washington, not Oklahoma, not Nebraska, not Florida, could stop Robbie Bosco. Or Bernie Kosar. Or especially Doug Flutie. I mean, we're not talking about the San Francisco 49ers here.

Switzer says, with justification, that "BYU beat its schedule, but it didn't beat the world." The schedule had some Puddins. But how much worse was it than Washington's schedule? Washington didn't play UCLA and was beaten by USC. Washington beat two teams with more than six victories -- Arizona (7-4) and Houston (7-5); BYU did, too -- Hawaii (7-4) and Air Force (8-4). Washington and BYU both beat Michigan. Maybe that's why James said this morning, "I'm not criticizing anybody's schedule; you play the one that's handed you."

It's unfair to give the No. 1 ranking to Washington now, just as it would have been unfair to give it to Oklahoma had the Sooners won big. The ranking ought to be awarded on the basis of the entire season, not just one game -- especially a game in which the incumbent No. 1 team doesn't participate.

BYU had been No. 1 for the last three weeks of the season. You might argue that the voters were unwise to put BYU into a position where the Cougars would rise to the top spot through attrition, as happened when Nebraska and South Carolina lost on the same weekend. But once the voters put a team in the top five -- as both Switzer and James have with BYU in the UPI poll -- they are allowing for, and condoning that very scenario.

Once there, you should have to be beaten to lose your ranking.

Lose it on the field. Not in a press tent 2,000 miles away.

It might not matter much which team was the best of 1984 anyway, since the year belonged to Doug Flutie. But for the future, the only reasonable way to decide a real champion is to have a real championship.

Because extra games would be added for the tournament, major football schools could cut their regular season schedules back to 10 games. (Teams that did not qualify for the tournament could add on an 11th game of their choosing.) The major conference champions would automatically qualify for the 16-team playoff, and would be joined by various independents and conference runners-up as selected by a tournament committee.

First-round games could be played at sites that now play host to the minor bowls. Second-round games could be played at the four traditional major New Year's Day bowl sites. The playoff could be arranged so that the final would be played on the weekend before the Super Bowl. Only two teams would end up playing 14 games; only two more would play 13.

The colleges would lose the tradition -- and the millions of dollars -- of the New Year's Day bowls, to gain an undisputed champion.

Most fans would welcome it. Just think: another two games to watch, and another two chances to get incinerated by MX fireworks.

But as much as I might like to see a playoff, I can't help but feel sorry for the players should one be instituted. Now, the bowl games are a joy, because in the main they are a reward for a season well done. To remove that joy and stretch a long season out even longer seems rather grinchy. These are, after all, college students. Kids. They just don't pay them enough, not even at Florida, to make college football all business.