In the end, the University of Virginia didn't have to make the tough decision about whether to decline a bid to the Fiesta Bowl in protest of Arizona voters failing last week to authorize a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. As the topsy-turvy New Year's Day bowl scenario played out, the Sugar Bowl took the Cavaliers off the hook.

There's only one possible hitch. In Charlottesville this week, players and administrators live in fear of winning the ACC championship and being forced to return to the Citrus Bowl under terms of a four-year contract between the conference and the Florida Citrus Sports Association.

Virginia (8-1, 5-1 ACC) would win the ACC by beating Maryland at home and if -- it's a highly unlikely if -- Wake Forest (2-7) upsets Georgia Tech. Virginia lost in the Citrus Bowl to Illinois, 31-21, last season.

The New Year's night Sugar Bowl in New Orleans always had been Virginia's first choice, and Fiesta Bowl officials said Athletic Director Jim Copeland told them that in the middle of last week. Copeland also told Fiesta officials he wasn't very optimistic; he reiterated that point yesterday.

"The Sugar was showing an interest in us, but you could tell there were other options out there that were viable for them," he said. " . . . Everyone would like to have Notre Dame and everyone holds out that hope as long as possible."

Top-ranked Notre Dame, which traditionally chooses a bowl game against the highest-ranked opponent possible, informally has agreed to play in the Orange Bowl against Big Eight champion Colorado, ranked No. 2 in the Association Press poll released yesterday. The game would decide the national championship (and be a rematch of last season's Orange Bowl) if both teams win their final two regular season games in a year of upsets that has sent bowl officials scurrying the past two weeks.

Even if the Irish had lost to Tennessee last week, a Sugar Bowl bid for them was unlikely, because a Notre Dame-Tennessee matchup loomed there, depending on the outcome of Saturday's Mississippi-Tennessee game that likely will decide the Southeastern Conference championship.

The Sugar was counting on third-ranked Miami, the No. 2 television college football attraction after Notre Dame. But Miami shunned the Sugar, choosing instead the Cotton, probably against seventh-ranked and underestimated Texas, which Saturday routed Houston, previously the only remaining unbeaten, untied team in Division I-A.

Should Notre Dame or Colorado falter, the Cotton looms as the only other bowl that could be a factor in deciding the national championship.

That left the Sugar to scramble.

Nebraska, which lost to Colorado, a week ago would have been a logical choice except for one thing: the Sugar Bowl goes up against the Orange Bowl in prime time, and Mickey Holmes, the Sugar's executive director, knew he couldn't have the second-place team in the Big Eight playing at the same time as champion Colorado and expect any kind of television ratings.

That's why Nebraska last week -- almost three weeks before the Nov. 24 date that bowl bids officially can be extended -- chose to play in the Citrus Bowl. The opponent in Orlando should be fourth-ranked Georgia Tech, the ACC champion with a victory over Wake Forest or a Virginia loss to Maryland Saturday.

That left the Sugar with two choices -- the Big Ten runnerup or Virginia. Holmes, sources said, was only lukewarm toward the Big Ten runnerup, whoever it is. Presto, invite those Wahoos.

"I've become the biggest Georgia Tech fan ever. Go Tech!" said Virginia offensive tackle Paul Collins. "I can't think of a better place to be than on Bourbon Street. It's a weird thing. It's hard right now to say we don't want to be ACC champions, but we're in the Sugar Bowl and Georgia Tech isn't."

The only one of the seven New Year's Day games without an informal agreement is the Fiesta, which had been considering a move to San Diego. That option was squelched.

Meanwhile, California and Wyoming have agreed to play in the Copper Bowl in Tucson on Dec. 31.

Virginia would have had a tough decision to make if the Sugar Bowl bid hadn't come along. Penn State and Notre Dame had already said they would not have played in Tempe. Louisville apparently will take one of the Fiesta invitations, spurning the All American Bowl and its smaller payout.

"One of the main problems in our country is racial division," said civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson, whose son Yusef is a starting linebacker at Virginia. "Colleges have an obligation to make a moral judgment."