Six weeks ago, after his Pittsburgh team had routed Florida State, 42-14, Coach Jackie Sherrill declared the victory "the biggest one since I've been coach here."

This week, thinking back to that game and looking ahead to Saturday's game here with Penn State (noon, WJLA-TV-7), Sherrill repeated himself. "It was the biggest win for us because it established us in people's minds as a program that maintained a certain level even when it lost a lot of great players.

"It also sets this one up so that a win would be even bigger than that one. It would do so many things for this program."

Sherrill isn't speaking only about 1981. What this game means in terms of this season is simple. The Panthers (10-0) are ranked No. 1 in both wire-service polls. If they beat Penn State Saturday and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, they will win the school's second national title in six years.

Penn State (8-2) comes into this game ranked No. 9 in the country. It will play in the Fiesta Bowl regardless of the outcome. But these two schools, and these two coaches, Sherrill and Joe Paterno, look upon each of these matchups as having meaning that goes beyond national rankings.

The previous two years, Pitt finished 11-1, ranked sixth and second nationally, and beat Penn State -- at Penn State. The Lions were 8-4 and 10-2 those two seasons.

This was to be the year when Pitt, losing 15 starters, nine of them off a superb defense, would slip somewhat. Penn State, with most of its key people back, was expected to be the Eastern team that would make a run at the national championship.

But it has not worked out that way. Penn State was ranked No. 1 for two weeks in October, but its season soured with losses to Miami and Alabama, the latter a 31-14 humiliation at home.

It is the Pitt defense that has amazed everyone this season. Only two starters returned off the Hugh Green-Ricky Jackson defense of a year ago, but, led by linebacker Sal Sunseri, the Panthers have been better statistically than the 1980 team. They are allowing only 51 yards a game rushing and shut Florida State down completely.

Penn State's defense, playing against tougher competition, has been very good against the run, but vulnerable to the pass. The latter fact must scare Paterno, because Pitt quarterback Dan Marino, only a junior, is already being tabbed as one of the greats.

Todd Blackledge, Penn State's quarterback, is a sophomore and not in Marino's class. He has played well at times this year and, given time to pass, can be very effective. The question is: can the Lions' senior-laden offensive line give him that time?

But the most intriguing matchup in this game is the one between the coaches. Paterno, 54, has ruled Eastern football almost since the day he became Penn State coach in 1966. He was unchallenged until 1973, when Johnny Majors, with Sherrill as his top assistant, took the job at Pitt and rebuilt the Panthers.

In 1976, Majors' fourth season, he beat Paterno for the first time and, led by Tony Dorsett, went 12-0 and won the national title -- something Paterno has been unable to accomplish. Majors left for Tennessee after that season and Sherrill, who had left after the 1975 season to become coach at Washington State, succeeded him.

Many thought that would be the end for Pitt, and Paterno beat Sherrill in their first two meetings, including 1978 when the Lions were ranked No. 1 going into the game and scored late to win. But Penn State lost the national championship in the Sugar Bowl and, since 1979, has gone 26-8. Pitt is 32-2 during that period.

In 16 years, Paterno has never lost to the same school three years in a row. The last person he wants to see break that streak is Sherrill. The relationship between the two is cool at best, frigid at worst.

Paterno not only sees Sherrill as the very real threat that he is, but resents his unwillingness to cooperate in his plan to form an Eastern football conference. Sherrill being a Bear Bryant product, Paterno sees him as another in the line of coaches whose philosophy is the antithesis of his "Grand Experiment," the more-to-life-than-football approach.

Sherrill, who at 27 has a 49-8-1 record in five years at Pitt, resents being labeled a Bryant clone, especially since much of what he does goes against the Bryant philosophy; for example, Sherrill abolished the athletic dorm at Pitt, not only encourages his players to be public speakers but demands it of them, and may be the most accessible major-college coach in the country. Paterno, by contrast, is harder for the media to reach than even Bryant.