MIAMI, DEC. 29 -- New Year's Day always has brought great joy to the American sports fan, if for no other reason than it is a time that brings order to the world of college football.

By the time the Orange Bowl, halftime show and all, finally closes the day, top slots in the news service polls have been filled, questions have been answered and most arguments have been ended. The season might have been confusing, but now someone is No. 1 and everyone can close up their tailgate parties and go home.

This New Year's Day, however, is different. It's unsettling. It's irrational. It's preposterous.

Five teams, more than anyone can remember, have designs on the mythical national championship. It doesn't require much of a stretch of the imagination to envision different No. 1 teams in different polls. There have been split votes before, but between just two teams.

If top-ranked Colorado (10-1-1) loses in the Orange Bowl to Notre Dame (9-2), No. 2 Georgia Tech (10-0-1), No. 3 Texas (10-1) or No. 4 Miami (9-2) -- the last two teams play in the Cotton Bowl -- and No. 5 Notre Dame all believe they deserve to take the Buffaloes' spot.

But the posturing and positioning aren't the only strange things about this year's bowl games. An officiating mixup, the pressure on athletic directors and bowl officials to make early deals and the politics of Arizona all have muddied the picture.

If Colorado beats the Fighting Irish, it will be No. 1, but only because it used a fifth down to beat Missouri in October. It's a controversy that won't go away, but it's important to keep in mind that the Buffaloes spiked the ball on what they thought was third down (but really was fourth down) to stop the clock for their fourth (fifth) down play at the end of the game.

"We never would have done that had we known it was fourth down," said beleaguered Colorado Coach Bill McCartney.

Virginia, a team that lost three times in four weeks in November, is playing on New Year's Day in the Sugar Bowl because deals were made too soon this year. The Sugar Bowl was punished with a game between No. 10 Tennessee (8-2-2) and an unranked Virginia team.

"The bowls can't take all the blame," said NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz. "An athletic director gets bypassed a year when he thinks he ought to get to a bowl, so he's going to make darn sure it doesn't happen again. He's out there putting pressure on: 'I need a decision now. I need a decision now.' "

Meanwhile, the Fiesta Bowl, which traditionally has lured top teams and became the first of four other bowl games to join the Big Four (Rose, Orange, Sugar and Cotton) on New Year's Day, found itself mired in controversy over Arizona's vote on the Martin Luther King holiday and had to settle for No. 18 Louisville (9-1-1) and No. 25 Alabama (7-4).

Louisville's coach, Howard Schnellenberger, is making his first appearance in a bowl game since 1984, when his Miami Hurricanes upset No. 1 Nebraska to win the first of their three national titles.

Clearly, the politics and anxiety of the season now manifest themselves on New Year's Day.

"There's a theme coming out this year, and it's that this football season has been very confusing and people are looking to the bowls to sort it out," said Orange Bowl Executive Director Steve Hatchell.

"As you look back the last 10 years or so, you can see that we've had a satisfactory system and usually have come up with a game to determine the number one team. But it's much more complicated than that this year."

How complicated? Perhaps nothing sums up the strangeness of the year better than this story about Penn State, which had its own visions of a national title until it lost to No. 6 Florida State, 24-17, Friday night in the Blockbuster Bowl.

One of the watershed moments of the 1990 collegiate season occurred Nov. 17 in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 and playing Penn State. The game was tied and the Nittany Lions were setting up to kick a 34-yard field goal to win the game.

Over the ball was Bob Ceh, a junior long snapper who had never snapped before the third week of the season. Ceh had been a student manager who toted and shagged balls and snapped in practice before the varsity players showed up. Injuries and a bar fight, with subsequent disciplinary action, forced Ceh into action.

So there he was, snapping the ball to the holder, Bill Spoor, who happened to be a walk-on who played wide receiver in high school and had never held for kicks before this season.

And Spoor positioned the ball for freshman kicker Craig Fayak, who was playing quarterback in high school a year earlier.

Fayak made the kick, and Penn State upset the Irish, 24-21, knocking them out of the No. 1 ranking and setting up the puzzlement of this New Year's Day.

In this year of the realignment of the conferences, with independents finally joining up, it's ironic to note that one of the reasons for the jumbled polls and bowls is that independents are viable candidates for the national title every year.

If it's not Miami, it's Notre Dame or Florida State challenging everyone. Because they are not tied to a conference's bowl requirements, they can wheel and deal with almost anyone, and almost everyone wants them.

The conferences also are flooding the bowl market. The Big Ten, which seems to become a bit weaker every year, has not had a national champion since Ohio State in 1968, yet it still put six teams (not counting Penn State) into bowl games this year. The reason is simple: Most Big Ten schools have huge enrollments and hundreds of thousands of alumni who would like nothing better than to leave the cold Midwest for a few days during the holidays.

One conference that gets almost no respect during the football season is the ACC. If you examine what happened to Virginia, perhaps that's warranted. But if you look at Georgia Tech, the nation's only undefeated team, it seems unfair.

It's true the Yellow Jackets were tied by North Carolina, but they haven't lost and will be trying to stake their claim to the national title by beating No. 19 Nebraska (9-2) in the Citrus Bowl.

So the Citrus and Blockbuster bowls figure in the national title race, while the Sugar, Fiesta and Rose simply hope for a good show.

"The bowls, and there are 19 of them, can satisfy a lot of wants of a lot of college teams," said the Orange Bowl's Hatchell. "There's still room for everything."