NO LONGER novices when it comes to appearing in bowl games, the Utes moved into the final day of preparation for the Freedom Bowl, Monday, with a different approach.

After three straight bowl invitations, they have decided the best way to prepare for the big game is reduce the level of angst. Consequently, this year they're taking taking a definite laid-back approach. They're kicking back and and getting in touch with their feelings. They're saying, "cool" and "bodacious" a lot.It isn't hard to spot who the Utes are in Southern California. They're the ones at Space Mountain, getting their picture taken with Mickey Mouse. That's them clambering off Montezooma's Revenge at Knott's Berry Farm. And that's them pulling in one night last week at - egads! - 2 a.m.

If the Utes are looking strangely like a team that's not terribly concerned about the pressure of playing in a bowl game, well, maybe they're not. Tonight's contest against Arizona marks their third straight trip to a postseason bowl and their second straight appearance in the Freedom Bowl. This isn't exactly uncharted territory. They know how to get on Harbor Boulevard and follow it straight down to the beach. They can get to the Crystal Cathedral in their sleep.

Finding a comfort zone wasn't all that easy for the Utes. The first two years, they came into their bowl games looking as relaxed as Bobcat Goldthwaite. They arrived early for the game and sometime before the first half ended they realized they were hopelessly behind.

"What we like to do," cracked Ute coach Ron McBride, "is to give somebody a 28-0 lead and see if we can catch up with them."

In trying to figure out exactly why his teams have started so slowly the past two years, McBride concluded they had been too keyed up. He wasn't running a football camp, he was building a torture chamber. They weren't there to have fun, they were there to raise their blood pressure. Which was OK, except when they got to the games. They were so keyed up the receivers would go on a sideline pattern and end up in Encino.

"That first bowl game he wouldn't let them have any fun. It was all business. It was all `Don't have any fun' and `Don't have any Christmas.' Ronnie was the Grinch," said his wife, Vicky. "So I got on him about it."

"He was really stressed about it," added defensive tackle Luther Elliss.

This is the guy who, when the Utes went to the Copper Bowl two years ago, practiced his team twice a day for two hours each session in full pads.

In contrast, this year's Utes have actually been spending time the past week doing largely what they want. McBride reduced practice sessions to one 11/2-hour practice a day. He moved the curfew back from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. He allowed players from Southern California to go home Christmas Eve and stay until late Sunday. He scheduled daily bus trips to the Orange County beaches. He even designated one night in which players could come in at 2 a.m.

That, as well as the usual trips to Knott's Berry Farm, Disneyland, the malls and the home for abused children.

Suddenly, the Utes are feeling different. They're acting like they were going on a field trip, not attending a bowl game. "There's certainly been a difference," added Elliss.

This year, even McBride allowed himself a little more space. He invited his family, grandchildren in tow, to his room in the Presidential Suite, on the top floor of the Anaheim Marriott for Christmas - the one with "McBride Suite, Freedom Bowl 1994" on a door nameplate.

It isn't as though McBride isn't tending to business. His wife says he has been telling her, "We've got to win. It's our turn." It's just that he's giving himself and his players some space in which to operate.

So if you happen to be at the Movieland Wax Museum today and see Coach Mac looking at the Star Trek display, don't be surprised. He's preparing for the big game. If three straight bowl games have taught him anything, it's that a relaxed attitude is the only attitude you want once the bowl season begins.