Some form of recompense should be given to those who observed this long, irremediable college football season and managed to endure it all without once complaining about busted promises.

What remains of 1985 surely cannot serve to ameliorate what preceded it. But the college bowl season, already in full swing, will come to a conclusion New Year's Day when the country's top four teams -- Penn State, Miami, Oklahoma and Iowa -- play before national television audiences and the wide, dissenting community of pollsters who finally will close the door on the debate over who's No. 1.

For the first time since 1978, when the Associated Press and United Press International polls split in naming the country's best team, there might be two national champs. That year, Alabama and Southern California ended up on top. This year, if undefeated Penn State successfully defends against the explosive Oklahoma wishbone and wins the Orange Bowl, the Nittany Lions will claim the title. But if they lose, as most observers of the college game are predicting, the scramble to claim it all may resemble a bunch of hot, canned worms squirming for space.

In the final regular-season AP poll, which consists of 55 sportwriters throughout the nation, Penn State holds the top ranking, Miami is second, Oklahoma third and Iowa fourth. The UPI coaches poll shows Penn State at No. 1, Oklahoma second, Iowa third and Miami fourth. Fifth-ranked Michigan, which plays Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, virtually has no chance of slipping into the top spot.

Without a playoff system, the business of judging which team deserves to be named No. 1 is about as difficult as the business of explaining how three one-loss teams (Miami, Oklahoma and Iowa) and one no-loss team (Penn State) think they're worthy of the crown.

Penn State might make it simple for everybody come Jan. 1, but even then, coaches, players and fans of contending teams will be heard questioning the competitiveness of the Nittany Lions' schedule and the hard, almost embarrassing time they had with it.

If Oklahoma wins, Coach Barry Switzer will argue that his team deserves the title and no doubt draw a comparison to Miami's triumph over previously undefeated Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl. In that game, the fifth-ranked Hurricanes vaulted into first place after staging one of the most exciting upset victories in college football history.

Switzer's lobby will sound good and convincing until Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson, shouting over a bullhorn in New Orleans after whipping Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, reminds everyone that the Hurricanes overwhelmed the Sooners, 27-14, in a regular-season game at Norman, Okla.

"And we did it with almost no sweat," his quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, said this week. "We could have beaten them worse."

After Johnson's self-assertive monologue, the voice of Iowa Coach Hayden Fry will echo from across a big spread of pasture, from way out in Pasadena, Calif. Fry will say his team's runaway victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl was the finest performance he had ever seen in his life.

Affecting a serious Texas drawl and kicking his alligator boots against the lectern post, Fry will warn the nation of voters that if they do not make his team No. 1, the winter will be even longer for Iowa's farmers, who need the championship to get them through their long and agonizing economic crisis. Fry will say the Hurricanes weren't that good anyway, losing the way they did to Florida in the season opener, and why should the Sooners win the vote when they can't even win over Miami?

If Penn State loses, there could be three champions of some repute. Say Oklahoma takes the UPI poll and Miami the AP, leaving the Hawkeyes to sulk and hang their collective lip. The National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame may feel charitable enough to present their MacArthur Bowl to poor old left-out Coach Fry. An 11-member group, headed by former Army quarterback Doug Kenna, has been making that award since 1959.

But if that panel of former football players disappoints the good people of Iowa, maybe the Football Writers Association of America will do the right thing and hand out their preeminent award to the Hawkeyes. After the last bowl game, five veteran writers who should know No. 1 from No. 2 decide the champion, call a newspaper fellow in Greenville, S.C., and announce their choice for the title.

The school with most votes wins the championship. And the panelists who did the voting go out and tell everybody who they are. To keep from taking on added pressure, the five writers keep their identity as title-pickers secret for an entire season.

Says Paterno, in explaining why he favors a playoff system: "I just hate to see anybody voted out of a national championship because it happened to us three times -- in '68, '69 and '73. All three years, we were undefeated and had good, solid bowl wins and did not win the national championship."

Others like things just the way they are -- crazy and wild and unpredictable. Jimmy Johnson says he likes the bowls and "having all this interest stirred up." He thinks it's good for the college game, and before you go, he wants you to know that if Penn State loses, you should check and see who has the longest winning streak in the country.

Could it be Miami, you ask.

"You'd better believe it's Miami," he says and thumps his hand down on his desk.