NOTRE DAME, having ascended to the top spot in the national polls, now has a grip on the steering wheel that determines bowl pairings this football season. And there are indications the Irish might shift gears.
The conventional thinking is that Notre Dame, if it wins Saturday at Tennessee, is headed for an Orange Bowl rematch against probable Big Eight champion Colorado. The No. 4 Buffaloes now are the highest-ranked team the Irish could play on New Year's Day, with No. 2 Washington going to the Rose Bowl and No. 3 Houston on probation.
But some bowl officials detect a shift in Notre Dame's inclinations.
"Notre Dame, as the No. 1 team, has given itself the opportunity to look over the field," Orange Bowl president Arthur Hertz said. "My guess is that they're trying to find out what would serve their own best interests.
"There's nothing I can do if Notre Dame thinks they can do that by playing somewhere else."
A source at another bowl said yesterday that Notre Dame might skip the Orange if it wins Saturday, and agree to a Sugar-Cotton arrangement:
Notre Dame, win or lose Saturday, would go to the Sugar Bowl if Tennessee does not represent the Southeastern Conference in that game. If Tennessee is the SEC team in New Orleans, Notre Dame would play the Southwest Conference champion in the Cotton Bowl.
An optional team -- Nebraska or Florida State -- would line up with the Cotton, but would move to the Sugar in a switch with Notre Dame if Tennessee gets the SEC bid for that game.
"We feel we have a definite chance to get Notre Dame, provided Tennessee is not the [SEC] champion," said Troy Mathieu, Sugar Bowl assistant executive director. "We would have to have another bowl working with us, but we don't know where teams are lining up right now."
The Cotton has displayed primary interest in Miami (Fla.) and Florida State, but Cotton Bowl vice president Jim Brock would not scuttle an alliance that could bring Notre Dame to Dallas.
"We've had Notre Dame five times, and nobody else can say that," Brock said. "We'd love to have 'em again. They can make any bowl attractive."
Notre Dame spokesman John Heisler denied that the Irish are hinting about trying to avoid a Colorado rematch in the Orange Bowl, where the Irish beat the Buffaloes, 21-6, last season. Heisler said "there are a million possibilities" and "with our schedule, nobody is making any reservations."
After Tennessee, the Irish play Penn State and Southern Cal the last two weeks of the season.
The Orange Bowl, if it doesn't get Notre Dame, would take Miami.
"Our thinking is that Miami has an excellent chance to be 9-2 and ranked among the top five teams in the country," Hertz said.
Other bowl possibilities on the New Year's Day schedule are not quite so complicated:
The Rose will match Pacific 10 champion Washington against the Big Ten winner. Iowa is the favorite.
The Fiesta, yet another remote Notre Dame option, probably will opt for an early deal for Penn State-Virginia.
The Hall of Fame reportedly has cut a deal with Clemson and would like a Big Ten opponent. Illinois, even if it loses to Michigan on Saturday, is the favorite because the Illini still could finish 8-3. Michigan, already a three-time loser, has Ohio State remaining on its schedule.
The Citrus has Atlantic Coast Conference champion Georgia Tech lined up. The Yellow Jackets could get to the bowl with a 10-0-1 record. The Citrus might match them with Michigan, even if the Wolverines finish 7-4.
The Gator probably will invite a Southeastern Conference team (Tennessee, Auburn or Mississippi). Florida State is a possible opponent unless Auburn is in the other spot, because that would create a rematch of a regular-season game.
But if Notre Dame wins this weekend, everyone has to wait for the Irish to park the bus.