This one is worth getting sober over. Very likely, Georgia versus Penn State in the Sugar Bowl Saturday night is as close to a national playoff as the colleges will, and should, get. Them Dawgs trying to fight off them Dreamers. And not quite making it.
Twice each decade, Joe Paterno usually has a team that can read, write and tackle well enough to be No. 1, but somehow falls short. If the president of the United States isn't influencing the jock electoral college, Penn State's schedule is. Or a pride of Lions can't navigate less than 36 inches through a Tide. Back to back.
Furious and frustrated, Paterno gave rings to the 1973 team that went 12-0 and still finished fifth in the polls.
"You can take it from me twice," he said, alluding to being second in '68 and '69 with unbeaten teams, "but not three times. I took my own poll."
Does the NCAA allow that sort of ring thing?
Paterno laughed. "I think the statute of limitations is up."
His patience with being a snide symbol of second best, now that Dean Smith has won an NCAA championship and Bud Grant hasn't been to the Super Bowl lately, is about up. In a more elegant way, he has told his players and his fans what Bum Phillips once yelled to the Houston Oilers: "We've knocked on the (championship) door; (this time) we're gonna kick that SOB in."
Few college teams have been as diversified on offense as Penn State this season; even fewer have traveled a more challenging road, eight of 12 opponents having been ranked among the top 15 at one time. Now all the Lions have to do is make football's most gifted undergraduate runner, Herschel Walker, seem human.
Walker is Old Main with afterburners.
Got a whole new game plan for this one, this second run at the national championship in his three years at Georgia, Walker said the other day. Pens screeched to a halt; jaws of a wise and wily press corps went slack. He went on: "Me at tackle."
The Lions will at least be trying to tackle the second Heisman Trophy winner in two years. They are anxious to find out how much tougher Walker is than Marcus Allen, the Southern California comet brought to earth during a 26-10 Penn State victory in the Fiesta Bowl last Jan. 1.
The Dreamers' pivotal player will be the quarterback, Todd Blackledge, a 6-foot-4 collection of contradictions. An honor student, he once had trouble understanding more than elementary defenses; a junior, he may be playing his final college game; he says this test will have no bearing on whether he turns pro, but he knows it will.
Blackledge may not be influenced by victory or defeat; future employers surely will.
The last fine quarterback who arrived here in a position to lead the Lions to No. 1, Chuck Fusina, saw thousands of imaginary dollars flutter away before he left. With four interceptions against Alabama, Fusina went from thinking about being a first-rounder to being a fifth-rounder in the NFL draft.
Everyone assumes another Blackledge-like performance will have him throwing for money next season. He wants to be chosen no later than the second round; that seems a modest-enough goal for a fellow with his size and strength who passed for 2,218 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
Four years (he missed his first season with a broken bone in his hand) after he arrived as not even a rising quarterback star, Blackledge has an offense suited to his special skills. He was as surprised as anyone that Paterno chose this season to emphasize passing.
"He'd been telling me for four years that we were gonna throw more, that we were gonna do more with the passing game," he said. "But it was something that never happened. Not that I was bitter. But I kinda took it with a grain of salt this year when he said we were gonna open up more.
"I thought in the back of my mind we might have to, because our line was so inexperienced, but I honestly did not believe it, or know what was gonna happen, until we opened up the Temple game with the first two plays as passes."
Blackledge threw 17 touchdown passes his first five games; then Lion blockers found a way to create daylight for Curt Warner, and Penn State finished with 2,283 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing and 2,369 yards and 22 touchdowns passing.
Blackledge calls this "a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
"I knew all along I'd be eligible for the draft," he said, "so I came in preparing as though this season would be my last at Penn State. Not because I'd made up my mind that I was leaving, but because I wanted it to be the best season I ever had. That was the way I went at it each week. We (his father is the offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers) decided I'd take care of the things I do best and let all the pieces fall where they may at the end."
Neat philosophy. For each Dawg and each Dreamer.