MIAMI, DEC. 31 -- It is fitting that the Orange Bowl, the latest and perhaps greatest college football game of the 1990 season, is a confusing confrontation.

Colorado Coach Bill McCartney is hoping his team doesn't fall apart under the strain of being No. 1, as it did last year, but he just doesn't know.

Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz is worried about being blown out, worried about his secondary, worried about almost everything. One of the few things not on his mind is the physical well-being of Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, whose thigh bruise has healed, returning him to his normal mercurial self.

While the top-ranked Buffaloes (10-1-1) wonder with anticipation and the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (9-2) simply fret, the 8 p.m. game itself is a bit of a mess. It is being billed as the game for the national championship, but there are other circumstances intruding on that eventual vote.

If Colorado wins, the Buffaloes almost certainly will take their first national championship and give McCartney his first bowl victory. (He is 0-4 at Colorado and a disciple of Bo Schembechler at Michigan, which speaks volumes for his luck on New Year's Day.) But, if Notre Dame wins, there is no certainty the Irish will ascend to the top spot. Georgia Tech, Texas and Miami all have higher rankings than Notre Dame, and perhaps higher hopes for the mythical national championship.

"It could possibly be the national championship game," Holtz said. "You don't know. I never worry about any ranking except the last one. But nothing would please me more than for us to win and have another argument."

"We're a hungry team," said McCartney. "We were in this position a year ago and we let it get away. A year ago, we didn't display mental toughness when we got here. We are mentally tougher now, but now we have to display that once more in the biggest game of all."

It is rare when the same two teams play in the same bowl with similar circumstances riding on the outcome for a second consecutive year. But that's the case here. Colorado, undefeated and incredibly innocent, breezed into the Orange Bowl a year ago and fell to pieces. The Buffaloes squandered three scoring opportunities in the first half and the game was a scoreless tie at halftime. In the second half, the Irish blew Colorado away, 21-6.

"We were in a daze because of the opportunities we let slip away," said tailback Eric Bieniemy, who fumbled in the open field as he dashed for a touchdown early in the game, with Notre Dame recovering.

No one believes that will happen this time. The Buffaloes have had a year to live with these memories, they have had another year near the top of the polls and they have had many close games. Their first six games all were decided in the last two minutes.

"This year we are a lot more mature going into this game," said Bieniemy. "We're more of a 60-minute ball team. Last year, we were more of a first-half team. We'd blow teams out and not have to worry so much in the second half. This year, we've had to play 60-minute games."

Colorado has a better passing offense this year to go with Bieniemy, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting after gaining 1,628 yards on 288 carries for a 5.7-yard average. Quarterback Darian Hagan had a miserable Orange Bowl, going four for 13 with two interceptions last year. He threw for 50 percent more yards this season than last (1,538 to 1,002), and seven more touchdowns (11 to four).

The Buffaloes are expected to throw more often in this game, although wide receiver Mike Pritchard has a broken left hand and will play with a cast. Notre Dame's weakest link is its defensive secondary, where opponents have passed for an average of 267 yards per game against a revolving door of freshmen.

"The nature of our football team is we don't want to make anyone pass," Holtz said.

With hundreds of players, coaches and others on both sidelines, it often is difficult to whittle the game to its core and select the one man who will make the difference. Except when that one man is Ismail. Notre Dame lost twice this year (to Stanford and Penn State), and one reason was Ismail, the Heisman runner-up, who missed the second half of both losses with the injury.

Ismail is going to be lined up as a receiver more than as a tailback, Holtz said. But Notre Dame is hoping to get the ball into his hands 18 to 20 times, so it is likely he will be running with it.

In a rare interview, Ismail grudgingly acknowledged he is back to 100 percent. Ismail made one brief public appearance this week; it is well known he despises interviews, publicity and autograph seekers.

Colorado defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz had the perfect solution for stopping Ismail: "We were thinking of sending him a notice telling him there's a press conference at 8 p.m. Tuesday and maybe he wouldn't show up."