The most contentious of college football seasons came to a muddled conclusion yesterday, as an afternoon of debates and calls for a playoff system ended with Colorado and Georgia Tech each being awarded a piece of the news services' first split national championship in 12 years.

Colorado, whose only previous NCAA titles had come in skiing, became the first top-ranked team to win its bowl game and fail to finish No. 1 since the news services established permanent postseason rankings. That phenomenon occurred in the United Press International coaches' poll, in which unbeaten Georgia Tech collected 30 first-place votes to Colorado's 27 and edged the Buffaloes, 847-846.

Colorado (11-1-1) topped the Associated Press poll of sportswriters and broadcasters by a comparatively comfortable margin. The Buffaloes got 39 first-place votes and 1,475 points to Georgia Tech's 20 first-place votes and 1,441 points. Miami was third in both polls, and the remainder of the top 10s were similar as well. Michigan and Tennessee shuffled between Nos. 7 and 8 in the two versions, and Penn State replaced Houston at 10th in the UPI rankings (which do not include schools on NCAA probation).

Virginia -- a 23-22 loser to Tennessee in Tuesday night's Sugar Bowl -- was 23rd in the AP poll, 15th in UPI's.

The last time teams shared the title was in 1978, when Alabama was the AP's choice and Southern Cal UPI champion. Reaction on both sides naturally was mixed, and the debate about who's really No. 1 raged on.

"What a tremendous moment it is for our school, our kids, the state of Colorado and the city of Boulder," Buffaloes Coach Bill McCartney said early in the day, just after learning of the results of the AP poll. Later, he was predictably more distraught, saying: "I don't think it's right, but there's nothing I can do about it. In our minds, we won the championship."

His team ended the season with a 10-game winning streak after a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. Colorado is the AP's second national champion since the onset of the poll in 1936 to have a loss and a tie (Alabama, 9-1-1 in 1965, was the other); no two-loss team ever has won the title. Georgia Tech became the first undefeated club since Southern Methodist in 1982 not to capture the AP title.

Colorado's punishing schedule included Tennessee, Illinois, Texas, Washington, Oklahoma and Nebraska, yet the Buffaloes' claim to No. 1 hardly was above reproach. There was their infamous five-down victory at Missouri in October, and there was the 91-yard, apparent game-winning punt return by Notre Dame's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail that was nullified by a clipping penalty in the final minute Tuesday.

Georgia Tech, not to mention Miami, continued to make its case yesterday even after the AP results were in. The Yellow Jackets -- who beat Nebraska by a convincing 45-21 in the Citrus Bowl, then retired to a hotel banquet room to watch the Orange Bowl on television -- were Division I-A's only undefeated team at 11-0-1.

"The closer we got to it, the more I thought we might get it," Yellow Jackets Coach Bobby Ross said from Williamsburg, where he flew Tuesday night to be with his hospitalized mother. Martha Ross, 80, had a stroke two weeks ago. Ross added: "Even on the sideline at the game, I was thinking about her. . . . It's been a year of highs professionally, but some real lows personally."

He conceded that entering New Year's Day he believed that Colorado would be No. 1 if it beat Notre Dame. By yesterday, though, he apparently had convinced himself that his team should occupy the top spot. The Yellow Jackets were maligned for their schedule, yet they beat four bowl teams during the regular season and their Division I-A rivals had a record of 69-55-2 (compared with 88-58-4 for Colorado's.

Georgia Tech was attacked further because it plays in the traditionally football-weak Atlantic Coast Conference, which went 3-1-1 in bowl games. "I think the ACC was vindicated," said Ross, who also was quick to point out that Colorado beat Nebraska by just 15 points in what was the only common opponent between the top two clubs.

Georgia Tech President John P. Crecine called the Yellow Jackets the "true" national champions and canceled classes at the school for Friday, the day students were due to return from Christmas break.

With the situation so uncertain, the need for a playoff system was espoused by many yesterday.

Ross said he always has favored a tournament incorporated into the bowl structure, and Miami Coach Dennis Erickson joined him: "There shouldn't be any doubt, any debate. The best team won't always win a playoff, but whoever wins a playoff will clearly be the champion."

------------ AP (MEDIA) -------------

Rank..Team................Record....Points

1....Colorado (39).......11-1-1....1,475

2....Georgia Tech (20)...11-0-1....1,441

3....Miami (1)...........10-2-0....1,388

4....Florida St..........10-2-0....1,303

5....Washington..........10-2-0....1,246

6....Notre Dame...........9-3-0....1,179

7....Michigan.............9-3-0....1,025

8....Tennessee............9-2-2......993

9....Clemson.............10-2-0......950

10....Houston.............10-1-0......940

11....Penn St..............9-3-0......907

12....Texas...............10-2-0......887

13....Florida..............9-2-0......863

14....Louisville..........10-1-1......775

15....Texas A&M............9-3-1......627

16....Michigan St..........8-3-1......610

17....Oklahoma.............8-3-0......452

18....Iowa.................8-4-0.....370 1/2

19....Auburn...............8-3-1......288

20....Southern Cal.........8-4-1......266

21....Mississippi..........9-3-0......253

22....Brigham Young.......10-3-0......246

23....Virginia.............8-4-0......188

24....Nebraska.............9-3-0......185

25....Illinois.............8-4-0......146 1/2

Rank..Team................Record....Points

1....Georgia Tech (30)...11-0-1......847

2....Colorado (27).......11-1-1......846

3....Miami (2)...........10-2-0......763

4....Florida St..........10-2-0......677

5....Washington..........10-2-0......664

6....Notre Dame...........9-3-0......548

7....Tennessee............9-2-2......449

8....Michigan.............9-3-0......426

9....Clemson.............10-2-0......420

10....Penn St..............9-3-0......301

11....Texas...............10-2-0......268

12....Louisville..........10-1-1......245

13....Texas A&M............9-3-1......204

14....Michigan St..........8-3-1......120

15....Virginia.............8-4-0.......65

16....Iowa.................8-4-0.......57

17....Brigham Young.......10-3-0.......41

17....Nebraska.............9-3-0.......41

19....Auburn...............8-3-1.......39

20....San Jose St..........9-2-1.......16

21....Syracuse.............7-4-2.......12

22....Southern Cal.........8-4-1........9

23....Mississippi..........9-3-0........7

24....Illinois.............8-4-0........6

25....Virginia Tech........6-5-0........5