BOULDER, COLO. -- The University of Colorado still takes the fifth and offers no apology.

If the top-ranked Buffaloes defeat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, they believe they are the national champions. Case closed, sniffs Colorado. Fifth down is not a factor. The Buffaloes, owners of a glitzy 21-1-1 regular season record over the past two years, argue that their 10-1-1 finish in 1990 was against the nation's most difficult schedule.

"We've played the top teams, we've beaten the top teams," said junior quarterback Darian Hagan. "Why say any more?"

Of course, there's much more to be said in the wake of a college football season that couldn't produce a consensus No. 1 team but had no trouble spawning enough controversy to spill over into 1991.

Based on its ranking entering postseason play, the national title appears to be Colorado's to lose, with the nation's pollsters apparently agreeing with the Buffs' contention that they've successfully dealt with a torturous schedule. Colorado's 1990 opponents included five New Year's Day bowl teams (Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Illinois and Nebraska). Three of those teams (Tennessee, Texas and Washington) are conference champions; two (Illinois, Nebraska) are conference runners-up. Colorado's record against those five: 3-1-1.

But Notre Dame confronted seven bowl-bound teams, losing only to Penn State. The bowl teams defeated by the Irish are Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force, Miami, Tennessee and Southern California. Their only other loss was to Stanford, sending Notre Dame to Miami at 9-2.

Based on the 78-42-3 combined record of Colorado's 1990 opponents, the NCAA says the Buffs played this season's most demanding schedule. But in the preseason, the NCAA rated Notre Dame's 1990 schedule the most difficult, based on its 1989 opponents' combined record of 81-32-4.

So Notre Dame's publicists flash the NCAA's preseason rating, while Colorado's hypists, naturally, prefer the other numbers. Both schools will continue their statistical sniping until New Year's night in Miami.

Still, even if Colorado defeats Notre Dame, the Buffs won't be able to eradicate the fifth-down asterisk that will forever accompany the school's drive for a first national football championship.

On Oct. 6, Colorado scored on fifth and goal from the 1-yard line to defeat Missouri, 33-31. The extra down went unnoticed by the officials, and Colorado -- which had dropped as low as No. 20 in the Associated Press poll after its 1-1-1 start -- continued its controversial climb to No. 1.

The fifth-down furor followed the Buffs from Columbia, Mo., back to Boulder and precedes their trip to Miami. Since the game against his alma mater, Coach Bill McCartney's mail box has rarely been without letters condemning him, his school and his conference.

"I get reminded about it all the time," McCartney said of the fifth down. "I feel strongly about the fact Colorado earned the victory, and do not apologize for the victory.

"I care what everyone thinks. Obviously, I would like Colorado to be portrayed in the most positive light. But on the other hand, it's kind of like spitballs off a battleship. You just go ahead, you just proceed."

Which is what J.C. Louderback, the referee in the Colorado-Missouri game, has tried to do. For their failure to correctly count the downs, Louderback and his six-man crew were suspended for one game by the Big Eight Conference.

To the chagrin of Missouri followers, that was the Big Eight's only response to the game. Now Louderback, who teaches high school math in Arkansas City, Kan., is philosophical about the fifth-down furor and its impact on the national championship.

In the week following the game, it was suggested that Colorado should "give back" its victory -- an impossibility under NCAA rules and a course not considered worth pursuing by the Big Eight. Even if it had been possible, Louderback bristled at the thought.

"Absolutely not," said Louderback, whose age (57) led to mandatory retirement from Big Eight officiating at season's end. "They shouldn't have given the victory back. The fact is Colorado wouldn't have thrown the ball to the ground had they known it was really fourth down. . . .

"My thought is, I can't tell you who should have won that game. We'll never know, and I feel bad for both teams that we'll never really know. If I was voting in the polls, sure, I'd look at the way Colorado won, and it was tainted. But I'd also look at what they did in the rest of their games too."

And that's become the central point of reference for Colorado's players and staff.

"The mistake on fifth down wasn't our fault," said Hagan, who did not start against Missouri and played sparingly because of a shoulder injury. "We've played a good schedule and knocked off the top teams. We deserve" the No. 1 ranking.

Added junior center Jay Leeuwenburg: "It's pretty simple: The team that plays the toughest schedule and wins the most games should be number one. We've done that."

Despite the steady and still venomous stream of cards and letters, McCartney contends most fans and national voters "have already dealt with {the fifth down}. I would hope as we play this game people would recognize what a great opponent Notre Dame is, and if we're fortunate enough to win, we would have survived the most difficult schedule in the NCAA this year.

"A year ago, we had more at stake than Notre Dame, and yet they beat us. We want to respond to that. We win the game, we're going to be the national champion. If they win, there's no telling what might happen."