Those who know Joe Paterno say the very thought makes him burn in Nittany silence. His record is 161-34-1, he's been to 15 bowl games in 17 seasons as Penn State head coach and he's had three undefeated/untied seasons.

But Joe Paterno has never won a national championship. Thirteen times his teams have been ranked in the top 10.

Why no national titles? The answer can't be found in this professor's poker face. Pride makes him rationalize.

He'll laugh and say, "Bear Bryant is Napoleon or Julius Caesar. I'm just Marie Antoinette."

Or he'll say the fault lies with the polls, or with Richard Nixon, or with both. Furthermore, he'll painfully strum the second fiddle and say, "Don't compare me with Dean Smith. My situation is different than his."

Then he'll say, "I don't like the polls. I'm the kind of guy who likes to win on the field."

Saturday night, Paterno will have that chance. That is when he can win on the field and in the polls. That is when No. 2 Penn State (10-1) will play No. 1 Georgia (11-0) in the Sugar Bowl in the Superdome. And that is when a Penn State victory over Herschel Walker would make it unlikely that the polls could deal Joe Paterno anything but the winning hand: No. 1.

"He's a great coach, a great man. It's about time he won a national championship," says Ken Kelley, Penn State linebacker.

"I know Joe thinks about a national championship," says Walker Lee Ashley, Penn State defensive end. "We all do."

Paterno has always stressed defense. So when the topic at hand concerns Penn State never having a national title, the Brooklyn-born coach turns defensive himself, as if responding to the requiem of "Say it ain't so, Joe . . ."

"I believe I've been a coach of three national championship efforts," Paterno says. "We had three undefeated seasons. You can't do anything more than that. If people don't vote us (No. 1), I can't do anything about it."

Paterno sees larceny striking thrice in his history:

In 1968, Penn State finished 11-0, with a 15-14 victory over Kansas in the Orange Bowl. The polls, however, ranked Penn State 2 and 3. "That was the year (No. 1) Ohio State had Rex Kern and that winning streak," Paterno rationalizes.

In 1969, Penn State again finished 11-0, with a 10-3 victory over Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Both polls, however, ranked Penn State No. 2. This was the year when President Nixon also proclaimed Texas (11-0) the national champion.

Republican Paterno did not accept either the No. 2 ranking or the plaque Nixon wanted to give him for the Nitanny Lions' two-year winning streak. Paterno now refers to that season as "the Nixon thing."

In 1973, Penn State finished 12-0, with a 16-9 Orange Bowl victory over Louisiana State. Nittany Lions running back John Cappelletti won the Heisman Trophy that season. Still, Penn State finished only No. 5 in both polls. Its schedule was too easy, it was said. People always said that about Penn State. Paterno disagreed.

Then came the 1978 season, when rationalization disappeared. Penn State was 11-0 and ranked No. 1 for the first time, then lost to Alabama, 14-7, in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. The Lions finished fourth in both polls.

"A sick feeling after that game . . . Like we were in shock," says linebacker Kelley, one of five fifth-year seniors on the current team to have a first-hand memory of that defeat.

With seven minutes to play in that Sugar Bowl, Penn State drove to a first down on the Alabama one-yard line. Trailing, 14-7, the Nittany Lions couldn't score.

No national championship.

"The thing I remember about that game," says Scott Fitzkee, San Diego Chargers wide receiver, and the player who caught the Chuck Fusina pass that brought Penn State to the 'Bama one, "is that we went down to New Orleans and blew it.

"Even now, I think all the time, 'Dang, if I could have got into the end zone, gone one yard more, we could have gone for two points and won the national championship.' It would have put Joe on top of everybody.

"Almost all our guys who were on the field for that series on the one-yard line are in the NFL now--and still we couldn't get it in. I remember after that game, it was raining. We went back to the hotel and just went to bed."

Reflecting on these seasons of 1968, '69, '73 and '78--three undefeated seasons and an Alabama goal-line stand--Paterno says, "I've had four chances (for a national title) and I've won three . . . Sometimes, people criticize me because they think I'm aloof. I just can't be bothered by that."

Joe Paterno, 56, is not one to rest. He has been at Penn State 33 years, the first 16 as Rip Engle's most valued assistant. Penn State hasn't had a losing season in 44 years, an NCAA record that continues to run.

Alumni that Paterno says number 220,000 beckon loudly and constantly. Paterno refers to these alumni as, "The people who never get to run around, saying, 'We're No. 1.' "

"I have to admit," Fitzkee says, "I'd like to be able to say, 'My school is No. 1.' I'm not part of the team now, but I am part of the tradition."

"I've talked to Jack Ham and Franco Harris (former Penn State players)," says Penn State's Pete Speros, the offensive guard from St. John's High School in Washington. "I think it means a lot to them that we do well down here."

Paterno has made his schedule tougher these days. Though he won't admit it, it seems hard to deny that this is a response to the cries of yesteryears when people said his schedule was too easy.

"Guys around the NFL, who went to different colleges," says Fitzkee, "still tell me today, 'You guys didn't deserve to be No. 1. You played against all those easy teams.' Well, they can't say that about Penn State anymore."

Indeed not. Penn State victories this season came against ranked (or once-ranked) teams like Maryland (39-31), Nebraska (27-24), West Virginia (24-0), Boston College (52-17), Notre Dame (24-14) and Pittsburgh (19-10). The only loss was at Alabama, 42-21.

"I came to Penn State because of the schedule," Speros says. "I knew we would play against some good people."

"The last couple of years, we've played one of the toughest schedules in the country, if not the toughest," Paterno says. "Years ago, we decided we wanted to play the Alabamas, the Notre Dames, the Pitts. Everybody has in his mind a plot to win the national championship. You play a game here, a game there. You lose one now, win one later.

"Well," Paterno says, smiling, "I'm just not that smart."

Paterno plans to coach, he says, for another seven or eight years. "Until my 10-year-old son goes to college," he says. He also says he likely won't consider an offer to coach in the NFL, like he did in 1969 (Pittsburgh) and in 1973 (New England).

He still has an interest in politics, he says, wanting to help a politician who would help this country. "If another Bobby Kennedy came out of the woodwork . . ." he'll say, finishing the point, but not the sentence. Also, he says he sees no place in college football history for himself.

"I hate to contradict him," Stuart McMunn, Penn State safety, says of his coach, "but the Bear Bryant era (of six national titles) will be superseded by the Joe Paterno era."

"When he's through," says Speros, the offensive guard, "he'll have to be classified with the Bryants and the Rocknes."

Paterno keeps saying, "As a coach, I got as much satisfaction from 1968, '69 and '73 as I'll get if we win Saturday night. I tell the kids, 'This is your national championship. Don't play for me. I'll be around again.' "

But the kids know differently. Linebacker Kelley says, "Winning the national title is not just for ourselves. It's for Joe . . . And I think we're going to do it."