Out on Biscayne Bay the other night, on a cruise boat crowded with the Washington and Oklahoma football teams, Paul Sicuro found himself suddenly overcome with a malaise of both mind and body.
He was sitting on a chaise longue and picking at a plate of fresh-boiled shrimp and crab legs, and wondering seriously about the prodigious size of some of his opponents in Tuesday's Orange Bowl.
"I don't know why it turned my stomach seeing those guys that night," Sicuro, the Washington quarterback, said today. "But it did. The water was pretty rough, too, and I got a headache and ended up walking around half the evening trying to find a breath of air."
Sicuro, a junior who earned the starting job in the ninth game of the season after performing exceedingly well in relief against Arizona, had met Sooners quarterback Danny Bradley a few days before at a publicity photo session, but knew none of the other Oklahoma players, who came to loom in his mind's eye as "incredibly huge, stocky people."
He studied his own ranks for reassurance and concluded, "We had some pretty big boys, too."
No. 4 Washington (10-1-1) enters this game with considerably more than its opponent's size to overcome. After losing to USC Nov. 10, the Huskies also yielded their week-old No. 1 ranking, the Pacific-10 title and a berth in the Rose Bowl, and so tarnished their reputation among pollsters that even a decisive victory over No. 2 Oklahoma might not give them the national championship.
Sicuro, perplexed by his team's standing among college coaches and sportswriters, said, "Maybe because we're out in the Northwest and don't get that much exposure, people question how good we are as a team. We play tough football in our league, no matter what you hear.
"If we beat Oklahoma by a couple of touchdowns, realistically, we should get the national championship. If it's a close game, the winner, whether that be us or them, should have a chance at it. I don't see why Brigham Young should be allowed to just waltz away with the title, especially if you consider the teams they played this year."
Coach Don James, who leads Washington in its first Orange Bowl, is quick to place the entire matter in a file marked "good for college football" and cast away any mention of a playoff system, even after enduring months of talk about his team's improbable situation.
James wonders why the Huskies are considered only back-door contenders for the national title while Oklahoma, at 9-1-1, has an inferior record and "a loss to a team like Kansas. Have the pollsters forgotten we went up against USC in Los Angeles on a day they played error-free football?
"Maybe it's that old thing about losing early, if you're going to lose. Maybe we lost too late in the year."
Contrary to the common current of bleachers patter, James contends his team has "a real fine chance to win the championship, even with the sentiment now going to BYU and Oklahoma. I think if we're impressive on national television, on New Year's night, we'll capture one of the two major polls."
The simplest and most unbecoming truth is that Washington would prefer to be playing in the Rose Bowl, against Ohio State, the Big Ten champion. "Then we would be undefeated and we would still be ranked No. 1," James said.
At least one of the Huskies brings a heightened sense of expectation into this game, and one that has nothing to do with the struggle for the national title. Tim Meamber, a senior linebacker from Yreka, Calif., and one of four team captains, long has been a fan of the Sooners, mainly because his father Jon played for Bud Wilkinson in 1961.
"I pulled for them up till the last game of the year," Meamber said. "Then I started looking at them in a different light. The Oklahoma players do themselves no good in the press. They talk so much about how great they are and what they're going to do, that it can really get to you. I like cutting their big talk out of the paper and taping it to the lockers in the dressing room. Little memos, you know."
Meamber, an all-conference player, leads a unit that has allowed an average of 11.6 points a game. But it will face a formidable test against the Oklahoma wishbone offense, led by Bradley and running back Spencer Tillman. The Huskies have not played against a wishbone team in seven years.
"I really don't know if we'll be able to completely shut down the 'bone," Meamber said. "But if we can take away the big play, we should be all right. We'll need a fair share of turnovers to win it, though. They're capable of exploding at any minute."
On offense, the Huskies will confront the only college team to limit its opponents to under 70 yards rushing per game. Tony Casillas, the all-America nose guard, will be "about the toughest down lineman we've played this year," Sicuro said.
"He heads a real attack defense, but we're pretty used to that. I've got a lot of confidence in my line. I know they're great athletes. I'm not all concerned with the rush. I'm more concerned about execution and getting the ball to my receivers. If we play our offense, I'm sure we'll do just fine against those big old boys."
James will celebrate his 52nd birthday Monday, but doesn't expect much of a party. "My wife may get a cake or something," he said. "We'll have that, but I hope we'll have something else to rejoice about come late Tuesday night. You forget how old you are and a few other things at times like these."