What does it say about Americans' love affair with the gridiron that many of them choose to celebrate New Year's Day by tuning in football games from dawn until dusk. The holiday is college football. Quick, what comes to mind first when you think of New Year's Day? Parades? They're only a warmup act for the games.

The sun shines on the Cotton Bowl in Texas, sets on the Rose Bowl in California and dies on the Orange Bowl in Florida. Surely that's the way it's always been since the beginning of time.It's safe to say that a vast majority of American males ushered in 1991 hunkered down in front of the tube. Well, somebody must be watching. The list of bowls keeps growing. Four new bowls were created in the '70s, four more in the '80s and, already, two in the '90s, each peculiarly named after various fruit, flowers, animals, commodities, sponsors and patriotic themes.

There were a record 19 bowl games this year, held coast to coast and beyond, beginning on Dec. 8 and ending Jan. 1. A record eight bowls were held on New Year's Day - all brought to your living room on national TV - up from four only a few years ago.

The new year began Tuesday with a tripleheader and ended 12 1/2 hours later, just in time for the 10 o'clock news (was this an accident?). By then even the most ardent football junkie had had his fill of football action, although that might hardly be the proper term. Someone recently calculated that football games actually consist of only 12 minutes of action - but take at least three hours to play. That means they played about 24 hours worth of football Tuesday to complete 96 minutes of football action. The remaining time was filled by beer commercials, halftimes, Keith Jackson, Brent Musberger, Toyota-thons . . . .

That most of Tuesday's games turned into routs should not have been a surprise. Because bowls are arranged in November, before the regular season is finished, bowl pairings are rarely ideal. On Tuesday there was No. 1 Colorado playing No. 6 Notre Dame, No. 2 Georgia Tech playing No. 13 Nebraska, No. 3 Texas playing No. 4 Miami (finally, they got one right), No. 7 Washington playing No. 15 Iowa, and so on. Whenever No. 1 and No. 2 actually do meet in a bowl game, it's considered a major technical feat, like landing on the moon.

In the end the national champion is not decided purely by players, but also by voters in the national polls, a situation that defies all logic for anyone but a gymnast or a show dog or an NCAA official. Even when the bowl games end, no one knows for certain who the winner really is until a day later, when the results of the polls are announced. But until the NCAA comes to its senses and rearranges the bowls into a championship tournament, this is the strange way of college football.

In the meantime, New Year's Day is the sport's crowded showroom floor, with everyone campaigning for votes. This year's championship was a contest between two teams playing on separate fields in Florida, several hours apart.

Georgia Tech, 11-0-1, finished with the best record in the land, crushing Nebraska in Orlando's Citrus Bowl, but probably will finish No. 2, where it began the day. The championship likely will go to Colorado, which finished with an 11-1-1 record and a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in Miami's Orange Bowl Tuesday night. According to the math of the pollsters, 11-1-1 beats 11-0-1.

But then winning college football's championship requires considerable luck anyway, especially for a team from the Rocky Mountains, and on that account the Buffaloes had some coming.

The '91 Orange Bowl - easily the day's best game - matched college's football's unluckiest team against its luckiest team. The Buffaloes had lost seven consecutive bowl games. They had had several brushes with the law in recent years. Last year their starting quarterback died, and they lost the national championship to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, largely because of a late fumble. They began this year with a loss and a tie and the infamous fifth-down victory over Missouri.

Tuesday they got a rematch. Same opponent. Same bowl. Same luck. They fell behind 9-3 in the first half and their starting quarterback was knocked out of the game with an injury. Same old story? Not this time. The Buffaloes' fortunes changed. Three turnovers fell into their hands, and backup quarterback Charles Johnson took them in for a score and a 10-9 lead. And then - talk about luck - a questionable clipping penalty nullifed a spectacular punt return for a touchdown by Notre Dame's Rocket Ismail with one minute left in the game.

It seemed an appropriate way to end the season - on a note of doubt and a clipping penalty, at the end of college football's big day. The only way it could have been better is if Colorado and Georgia Tech had been paired up on the field instead of on paper.