MIAMI -- A college football season marked by more controversy over polls than plays will wind down tonight. Depending on the results, the controversy could linger for a while.
Fourth-ranked Notre Dame (10-1), the only team to beat the Seminoles this season, will attempt to keep its flickering hopes alive when it meets No. 7 Texas A&M; (10-1) in the Cotton Bowl this afternoon in Dallas.
Third-ranked West Virginia (11-0), the only other unbeaten team aside from the Cornhuskers left in the hunt, will try to complete its remarkable season with a victory tonight over No. 8 Florida (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
"You would like to be so good that you win the whole thing," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles are ranked first in the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters, but are third behind Nebraska and West Virginia in the USA Today-CNN coaches' poll. "If it doesn't happen, I'm sure I can survive. They can say at least he won a little bit of one."
The consensus is that Florida State would be voted No. 1 in the AP poll as long as it beats Nebraska, but needs an impressive victory -- and a loss by the Mountaineers and possibly even the Fighting Irish -- to claim sole possession of its first national title.
If the Cornhuskers upset the Seminoles, who are favored by 16 1/2 points, Nebraska would win its first national championship since 1971. There is also the likelihood of a split national championship, which would mark the third time in the past four seasons that has happened.
"I think Nebraska has been treated very fairly," said Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne, who as recently as a month ago was publicly rooting for a New Year's Day matchup with West Virginia. "We've taken our shots, but at least we're in the game."
West Virginia coach Don Nehlen is in a familiar spot -- on the outside looking in. The Mountaineers, who turned down a spot in the Cotton Bowl to go for a higher payday in the Sugar Bowl, know they don't have a shot at an undisputed title, but they'll settle for finishing on top of the coaches' poll. "If we win and Florida State beats Nebraska, we'll get a share of the national championship," Nehlen said.
West Virginia feels it is being penalized for its four-year absence from the limelight. After 1988, when it went 11-0 in the regular season and lost to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, the Mountaineers didn't beat a ranked team until 1992.
"If we win, maybe we'll finally open some minds, but to tell you the truth, we're happy where we're at," Mountaineer linebacker Tim Brown said. "We haven't been in a bowl game in five years, and one good season can't change the way people think about you. We've had to earn the respect of everyone all year long, and this is one last chance."
West Virginia claims that the knocks against its schedule are unfounded, because Miami played a Big East Conference schedule when it won the national title two years ago. The Mountaineers' non-conference schedule this season was not the kind to get them any notice, however, as they opened against Eastern Michigan, Maryland and Missouri.
The most intriguing piece of the equation will be played out at the Cotton Bowl. When it beat Florida State in South Bend Nov. 13, Notre Dame seemed to be the odds-on favorite to win this season's national championship. But a shocking two-point loss at home to Boston College the following week flared a controversy that has yet to quell.
Fighting Irish coach Lou Holtz did little to quiet things when, on the daythe bowl bids were announced, he questioned how his team wasn't in the race for No. 1. He has kept up that tone this week as Notre Dame prepared to play the team it pounded in last year's Cotton Bowl.
"Are we voting for who the best team in the country is? If you are, it's hard for me to believe that No. 2 is a [16 1/2 -point] favorite over No. 1," said Holtz, whose Irish beat the Aggies in Dallas last year, 28-3.
While it seems likely that the bowl selection process will change after this season -- Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, a major force for the establishment of the Bowl Coalition last season, has called for a committee similar to the one used in college basketball -- the current method has made for some strange bedfellows.
Consider that the Seminoles will have to root for their most hated rival, Florida, tonight. Asked if that would be the biggest wish he would have aside from his own team winning, Bowden said, "Yeah, that would be my second wish."
And if Florida State loses?
B6 "If we lose," Bowden said, "I couldn't care less."