When BYU's fading football team meets the Miami Hurricanes Saturday night in the Orange Bowl, it might very well be the toughest challenge, and simply the best team, the Cougars have ever faced, period.

The odds are against the Cougars.- Miami has won 41 of its last 42 regular-season games, the lone loss being a one-pointer to No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in which the Hurricanes elected to go for a two-point conversion rather than a tying PAT kick in the game's closing seconds. The Hurricanes have the best record in college football during the past six seasons, 61-10.

- Miami, 9-1, is ranked No. 2 in the national polls. BYU has never played a team with such a ranking. Pitt, BYU's season-opening opponent in 1984, was close, with a No. 3 ranking, but that team never came close to justifying such a position. Among BYU opponents, perhaps only Ohio State (in 1982) and UCLA (in 1985) would be in the same class as this Miami team.

- Miami's talent, past and present, is all-world. UM has been a farm team for the pros, producing the likes of Burgess Owens, Ted Hendricks, Chuck Foreman, O.J. Anderson, Jerome Brown, Alonzo Highsmith, Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Eddie Brown, Michael Irvin, Bennie Blades. In the last six years alone, they have produced eight No. 1 draft choices.

- Miami has won two national championships in the last six years, in '83 and '88, and finished second once, in '86. The Hurricanes are now aiming for their third national title of the decade. "All I want is for people to take a look at our schdule," says Coach Jimmy Johnson . . .

- Miami, an independent, hasn't given itself the luxury of an easy schedule. The Hurricanes, who will meet Nebraska in the Orange Bowl Jan. 2, have played or will have played five teams in the top 11 of the national polls. They already have beaten three conference champions - Michigan, Arkansas and LSU - not to mention Florida State, everybody's preseason No. 1 pick.

"This team is probably a better team than the one that won the national championship," says LSU Coach Mike Archer, who was a Miami assistant on the '83 national championship team.

With hopes for another national title, the Hurricanes won't be in any mood to toy with the Cougars.

Their situation is precarious. No. 1 Notre Dame plays No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, which leaves Miami in a no-win situation. If Notre Dame wins, the championship race is over. If West Virginia wins, well, the Mountaineers are unbeaten . . . .

Dan Lebatard, who covers the Hurricanes for the Miami Herald, says, "There have been all sorts of straw polls among AP voters, and the feeling is that Miami has a chance (for No. 1) if it wins impressively, especially this one (BYU), because no one expects them to blow out Nebraska."

BYU Coach LaVell Edwards knows Miami's title hopes don't help his cause. "I was hoping Arkansas would nip them (last week) and lay all that to rest."

Dick Felt, BYU's defensive coordinator, sums up BYU's situation best: "There's not going to be anyone who gives us a prayer."

Particularly when BYU has lost two of its last three games _ to very average opponents, at that.

The oddsmakers rate BYU a 24-point underdog in Saturday's game, which will begin at 6 p.m. MST and will be televised live on ESPN.

Miami and BYU have a few things in common, even if one of them isn't talent. Both teams have produced successful, pass-oriented programs and a bevy of star quarterbacks. BYU claims Gary Sheide, Giff Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco; Miami claims George Mira, Kelly, Kosar, Testaverde and now Steve Walsh.

"The thing we talked about when we scheduled this game was that it would match up two of the finest passing teams in the country," says Johnson. "Without a doubt, there will be a bunch of points scored."

Only a junior, Walsh already has thrown for 5,132 yards, 47 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions while completing 60 percent of his passes. Ranked third nationally in pass efficiency, he is a good bet to finish fourth in the Heisman balloting behind Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders, USC's Rodney Peete and UCLA's Troy Aikman.

Walsh sprays the ball around the field to a variety of receivers _ five players have 25 or more catches, led by fullback Cleveland Gary, wideout Andre Brown and tight end Rob Chudzinski. Besides his team-leading 56 receptions, Gary also leads the team in rushing, with 442 yards. Tailback Leonard Conley has rushed for 426 yards.

The Hurricanes are fifth nationally in pass offense, one notch behind BYU, and 11th in total offense, but the defense is even better. Incredibly, the Hurricanes have held six opponents to 3 points or less. Only twice in 10 games have their opponents scored more than 7 points. They rank second nationally in both total defense and scoring defense and third against the run (allowing a paltry 9.6 points and 234 yards a game).

"They don't do anything fancy, but the execution of their (defensive) plan is phenomenal," says Norm Chow, BYU's quarterback-receiver coach. "They are around the ball." Do any of the Hurricanes stand out to him on film? "About eight of them."

Now, if only they can get the attention of the national pollsters. Barring a surprise, the BYU-Miami game could provide one more argument for the Hurricanes' claim to No. 1.