By Joe Paterno's reckoning, and also masses of Pennsylvanians whose football vision doesn't go much beyond nearby Mount Nittany, Penn State will be going for its fourth national championship when it meets Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

The rest of the grid galaxy cocks its eye and says: "Ain't won one yet, Joe."

There are certain no-nos in life. For instance, one does not mention Jimmy Carter to an American Olympian, discuss the merits of Jim Beam with populist parsons or broach football polls around Penn Staters. Not without an hour to spare and ear muffs.

Lion lovers -- and the breed has increased geometrically in the Washington area over the years -- get livid about the years 1968, 1969 and 1973, when State was unbeaten but finished no higher than second in any of the credible polls. Some very good future pros (Jack Ham, Mike Reid and John Cappelletti, to drop a few names) were on those teams.

"Only one team (Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl) beat us out of the national championship on the field," Paterno huffed after the Lions' 19-10 victory over Pitt here Friday. He softened a bit and added: "I hope we don't make it a two-game streak."

To neutral minds, the problem with those late 1960s and early '70s State teams was not who played on them, but who they played. Or didn't play. The entire East, nearly everybody on the schedule, was awful. Paterno pretty much played a one-game season those years, the bowls.

Stung by playing nobody, State now plays everybody.

It did this season: Nebraska, Maryland and Pitt at home; Alabama in Birmingham, West Virginia in Morgantown and Notre Dame in South Bend. Another road opponent, Boston College, also is bowl-bound, having tied defending national champion Clemson and won eight games in all.

"This is why I came here," said Pete Speros. "Four years ago I wanted to play on the team that had the best chance to win the national championship. The dream's come true. Last year, and so many other times, we've knocked on the door. We're gonna bust our butts this time to make sure we don't blow it again."

Speros is one of those players who goes unnoticed in high school beyond family and college scouts who recognize foundations for strong teams, the kind of blocker Jerry Claiborne lost his last years at Maryland and Bobby Ross had better get if the Terrapins are to be included in the top-10 crowd again.

"Liked Maryland a lot," said Speros, whose home is Potomac, Md., and who graduated from St. John's. "Not knocking 'em, but Penn State was a better program. Plus, I wanted to get away from home and be on my own a bit."

Speros, the offensive captain, said Paterno has emphasized national title more often lately.

"Talked about it more the last two years," he said. "Things like: 'How badly do you want to win the national championship?' He's always very cautious in public, but he keeps reminding us. And I speak about it among the players, use it as a motivating factor.

"Alabama (the loss when State had two punts blocked) was a setback, but then we really came together."

"The West Virginia game (two weeks later) was when it all started to fall in place," said safety Mark Robinson. "We're flattered to be up there. Not many get that far."

That 'Bama bust came early enough to get back in the good graces of the deep thinkers comprising college football's electoral college. Often, it's not that you lose, but when you lose that matters.

How you win also is nice, and State is going to this Sugar Bowl in even dandier duds than last time. That team, unlike so many others, also could run and pass; this one is even more refined, with the school's statistically most productive passer (Todd Blackledge), best runner (Curt Warner) and best receiver (Kenny Jackson).

Blackledge, a junior but eligible to be drafted, has led comeback victories against Nebraska, Notre Dame and Pitt each of the last two years. This was the first time the Lions ever passed for more yardage than they ran during a season (2,369 to 2,286).

They also play some defense. But Warner has decided the best way to check Herschel Walker Jan. 1 is what you'd do to any Dawg: tie him to the bench. Keep the ball yourself, don't let him near it.

"We have to control the tempo," he said.

Tempo and timing, perhaps the most undervalued aspects of sports. For the fellow on the other side of the field from Paterno Friday, Pitt Coach Foge Fazio, this season was a sweet chance turned sour. Nobody ever assumed control of a team with more promise, or more pressure.

Fazio was elevated from defensive coordinator when Texas A & M made Jackie Sherrill a millionaire, and inherited more fine players his first season as coach than some of his peers get in 10. Still, who else has ever been expected to win the national title his rookie year?

For an 8-3 record, Ross is seen as a genius by most Marylanders; for 9-2, Fazio is seen as a failure by some Pennsylvanians. Paterno could have told both of them there are more secure jobs. All he has to do to assure domestic tranquility, and peace in his own mind, is to harness his sport's finest protege, turn this fellow Walker into a walker.