ATLANTA -- Like most of those in his profession, Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Ross likes his football world to be neatly ordered, with surprises kept to a minimum.

His coaching strategies for a game's tensest moments are mapped out on notecards that are filed by score and circumstance, and the academic progress of Yellow Jackets players is meticulously documented in an overstuffed binder that's stored a swivel of a chair away from Ross's desk.

Also readily available is a chart of the program's dwindling rate of attrition -- for academic reasons and otherwise -- that Ross is quick to offer as a key factor in Georgia Tech's return to national rankings and prominence.

Ross was unusually harried and somewhat disheveled on a recent Sunday, trying to find a list of those players who were in danger of becoming academically ineligible as exam week drew to a close. An afternoon recruiting meeting had run long -- "I haven't been home one evening since the regular season ended," Ross said -- and he had missed an appointment.

"I'm usually not this disorganized," he said, and evidence quickly followed. A visitor related to him the furious finish of the Independence Bowl game between Maryland and Louisiana Tech the night before. Ross was curious about the decision of his former assistant, Terrapins Coach Joe Krivak, to kick a one-point conversion with a two-point lead and less than a minute to play in a game that ultimately ended in a tie.

Then he peeked inside a desk drawer.

"I have to check my card to see what I would've done in that situation," he said. " . . . Yep, I'd have kicked it too."

Thus it should come as no surprise that Ross also sees the possibilities for New Year's Day -- and the subsequent polls that will determine the national champion -- in crisp, clear-cut scenarios.

His Yellow Jackets are ranked second, Colorado first. If the Buffaloes beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, Ross concedes they're No. 1, a fifth-down victory over Missouri notwithstanding.

But if Colorado loses and Georgia Tech defeats Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl, Ross says he doesn't see how anyone could deny the Yellow Jackets their first national title since the wire service polls began determining such things with the onset of the Associated Press rankings in 1936. (Georgia Tech was named co-national champion with Pittsburgh in 1917 and with Southern California in 1928.)

The Buffaloes are "number one, we're number two," Ross said. "If they lose and we win, we move up. That's the way it works, doesn't it? How could it be any other way? If the voters didn't believe that we are a very good team, we wouldn't be number two right now. I mean, we're the only undefeated team in Division I-A."

Yet doubts persist about the Yellow Jackets, who just last season were stuck at the tail end of a 16-game losing streak to ACC opponents. Georgia Tech's 10-0-1 record this season, the skeptics point out, was forged against a schedule whose biggest hurdles were ACC rivals Virginia and Clemson; the Yellow Jackets' 41-38 triumph over the then-No. 1 Cavaliers Nov. 3 in Charlottesville was sullied by Virginia's subsequent losses to Maryland and Virginia Tech.

Traditionally stern tests against South Carolina and Georgia were dulled because those schools were mired in rebuilding situations and fell by a combined score of 67-29. The lone blemish on Georgia Tech's mark is a 13-13 tie with less-than-imposing North Carolina Oct. 20.

Even Georgia Tech's Jan. 1 foe brings smirks, for the Cornhuskers have two defeats against an embarrassingly easy schedule. "We've heard it all," senior fullback Stefen Scotton said. "We've heard how terrible the ACC is, how we didn't play anybody, how the Virginia win didn't mean anything because of the way they finished.

"But I'll say this: If we beat Nebraska, we deserve to be number one. We've done all you can do, beaten everyone in front of us. You can't beat someone you don't play. . . . Who deserves it more than us?"

Indeed, Georgia Tech's salvation may be that even if it is perhaps undeserving of a national championship, everyone else might end up more undeserving. Colorado already has a loss, a tie and the tainted, fifth-down win over Missouri. Fourth-ranked Texas is 10-1 heading into a Cotton Bowl showdown with No. 3 Miami; the Hurricanes, like the rest of the top 10, have two losses.

Georgia Tech makes its case on its record and the fact that it beat four bowl-bound teams -- Virginia, Clemson, Maryland and North Carolina State. "We met every challenge," said Scotton, conveniently bypassing the North Carolina game. "Very few teams in the country can say that. Undefeated means number one; that's just the way it is."

For Ross, however, the satisfaction of 1990 may rest more in the turnaround he apparently has completed rather than in a national title that may or may not come. The Georgia Tech program is rich in tradition and resources, with a history that includes legendary coaches John Heisman and Bobby Dodd and a gleaming set of facilities highlighted by a brand-new, $12 million support complex.

But victories have been scant in recent years. Ross's predecessor, Bill Curry, went 17-36-2, and Ross was just 12-21 entering this season. He said there were times he regretted leaving Maryland -- he departed in 1986 amid uncertainties about the future course of the athletic department in the wake of basketball star Len Bias's drug-related death -- but denied reports that the travails of his early seasons with the Yellow Jackets led him to contemplate retirement.

"At my worst moments, I thought about leaving here," he said. "I don't think I ever would have gotten out of coaching. . . . We had to basically start from scratch here, and I'm not blaming Bill Curry for that. It was just a bad situation, and it became a long, hard road."

There were losses, turmoil and tragedy. Georgia Tech was 5-17 in Ross's first two seasons, including 0-14 in the ACC. Academic casualties were high: Nine players were lost during his first summer. Safety Riccardo Ingram was declared ineligible because he signed with an agent. Tight end Chris Caudle drowned in a boating accident.

There was an ugly barroom brawl involving three of his players. And Ross had a 1-year-old granddaughter, Rebecca, die of a congenital heart problem.

Yet Ross steeled himself and pushed forward. He signed a hotly pursued in-state product, Shawn Jones, by promising the wishbone quarterback he wouldn't try to switch him to defensive back without at least giving his passing skills a look. Now Jones is one of the country's most feared young quarterbacks.

Last year's Yellow Jackets won seven of their last eight games to finish 7-4. Ross said he just wanted seven wins again this year, and suddenly he finds himself on the verge of a national title.

To top it off, the country's consensus No. 1 high school prospect -- Burlington, N.C., quarterback Donnie Davis -- verbally committed to Georgia Tech last week.

So Ross insists he's not about to fret too much over the year-end balloting.

"I'm not going to lose any sleep over it or anything," he said. "All we can worry about is taking care of business on our end. The voters won't change what this team has accomplished in our minds. We're proud of ourselves.

"Of course, if they want to give us the {national championship}, we're certainly not going to say no."