In 16 years as Penn State's football coach, Joe Paterno has built an enviable record.

This season, for the 14th time since Paterno took over, the Nittany Lions will be in a bowl game. They probably will be ranked in the top 10 for a 12th time. There is a strong possibility they will win 10 games for a 10th time under Paterno; there has never been a losing season. And, almost all of Paterno's players get their degrees.

Clearly, the "Grand Experiment," so called because of Paterno's insistence that there can be life beyond football at a powerhouse football school, has worked.

Yet, one piece is missing. Paterno has never won a national championship. There have been three unbeaten seasons, but each produced a No. 2 final ranking because the poll voters deemed Penn State's schedule too easy. In 1978, the schedule was there, the No. 1 ranking was there and a Sugar Bowl game with Alabama decided the national title.

Alabama won and afterward Paterno said, "I was outcoached."

The names of Paterno and Penn State have become synonymous with the Frustrated Runner-Up, so much so that North Carolina basketball Coach Dean Smith, also the national runner-up three times, made reference to them after his latest No. 2 finish last spring.

"I guess we'll just be like Joe Paterno and Penn State and always finish second," Smith said in a rare moment of public frustration.

This is the year that could change. The Lions have perhaps more talent than any Paterno team. They have almost everyone back from last year's 10-2 season and No. 8 ranking. No one can knock the schedule, which includes games at Nebraska and Miami early and Alabama, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh in the final three weeks.

"That schedule," said fullback Mike Meade, "is one of the reasons a lot of these guys are at Penn State. We wanted to play the best and be the best."

Beginning Saturday, when sixth-ranked Alabama ventures into State College (WJLA-TV-7 at noon) Paterno and Penn State begin perhaps the most challenging stretch the team has faced. There is the additional challenge of trying to stop Alabama Coach Bear Bryant from tying Amos Alonzo Stagg's career victory record (314).

With a 7-1 record and a No. 5 national ranking, the Lions say they are about where they want to be.

"Being No. 1 during the season means nothing, so losing the ranking is losing nothing," insisted offensive guard Sean Farrell, who is a contender for the Lombardi Trophy. "We still get to play Pitt and they're ranked No. 1, so not being ranked No. 1 doesn't matter. I don't think anybody is going to go undefeated, anyway."

Perhaps Farrell is correct. Certainly, playing Pitt on Nov. 28 gives the Lions a certain amount of control over their destiny. But they need some help. The No. 2 team is Clemson. There is no way the two teams can meet. If Pittsburgh loses and Clemson remains unbeaten, Clemson would be No. 1.

Paterno, 54, says it's no big deal. "I'm a competitor and of course I want to win, I always do," said the man nicknamed "Rat" years ago by his players because of his appearance -- short, dark and rumpled -- and intensity. "But I've always said there's more to college football than winning games and rankings. It would mean just as much to me to have all my players graduate as to win a national championship."

That is a familiar refrain. Certainly Paterno's record of graduating more than 90 percent of his players, backs it up. Still, there have been some blemishes. The 1979 season probably was Paterno's most frustrating, with players getting thrown out of school for academic problems, others getting in trouble for misbehavior and one being arrested on a charge of attempted burglary the night before Penn State played in the Liberty Bowl.

That 1979 team damaged Paterno's reputation as college football's Renaissance Man, the coach who put his players in dorms with "civilians," rather than in a jock dorm, the coach who wants players to read poetry as much as they look at game films.

It is an image Paterno cultivates. The Penn State press guide, for example, tells readers: "Players will not be asked to miss classroom time to do media interviews.

Paterno believes in taking responsibility when things go wrong. In 1979, he accepted the blame for the team's problems, said he had not known the players as well as he should have when he recruited them.

This year's team, according to all familiar with it, is as good a group as Paterno has had. Also, talented.

"It may be the fastest group we've ever had," Paterno said. "I don't know yet if it's the best team we've had, I guess that's what the next three weeks will tell us. But the potential seems to be there."

Privately, Paterno has said that junior tailback Curt Warner can be one of the best running backs ever to play. Todd Blackledge, the red-shirt sophomore quarterback, has improved steadily since taking over early last season. The defense is solid, the kicking game superb. Now come the tests Paterno wanted when he put together this schedule in the early '70s.

"You try to take every game one at a time but there's no question we've been thinking about these games," Meade said. "I think in the back of our minds we all knew the season would be decided these three weeks and in the bowl game."