Sometimes they walk through the lobby of the Fountainbleau Hilton Hotel. The ladies who work the bar know them by their necks. The Oklahoma and Penn State football players either have thick necks or no necks at all. And some of them wear flip-flops, tennis shorts and white, pressed shirts with an emblem over the breast pocket.
The emblem is of an orange with a smiling, freckled face and a little green crown on its head. A little green branch grows from the spot where his right ear should be. This is the Orange Bowl man. And he's one happy piece of fruit.
These young men -- here to compete against each other in the 52nd Orange Bowl Classic Wednesday night -- also had been very happy since arriving at their luxurious Miami Beach resort. For days, they ran into each other on the hotel grounds and introduced themselves. On a cruise the other night, they bumped into each other on the casino floor. They shook hands, waved so long. They said, "Good luck," as if they really meant it.
Then something happened. Members of both squads realized their shot at glory was not so far away. Who could bear to remain in the presence of the enemy?
One fellow, a linebacker for Oklahoma, said it hit so suddenly, it was almost like catching the flu. You felt good one minute, rotten the next.
"It's really uncomfortable having to look at them," Penn State defensive tackle Mike Russo said of the new feeling toward the Sooners. "You just don't feel right. You sort of want to get lost. It's just no good."
For both Penn State and Oklahoma, the nationally televised game (8 p.m., WRC-TV-4) that likely will determine the No. 1 team in college football cannot get started quickly enough. The Nittany Lions, ranked first in both the Associated Press media poll and the United Press International coaches poll, hope to win their 12th straight game and silence those who question the integrity of their undefeated, untied season. Tim Johnson, a defensive tackle for Penn State, responded this way when informed that his team was at least a seven-point underdog: "I don't know. It's about time everybody learned to respect us. Our big games were overlooked. Our talent was overlooked. Everything we do is overlooked."
Jamelle Holieway, the Oklahoma quarterback, said: "Whoever we play right now we go in as the favorite, and it's only because of the way we've looked in our last couple of games. We looked good. We looked like the best team in the country."
The Sooners, ranked second by UPI and third by AP, hope to deliver a performance impressive enough to convince pollsters they are the strongest team in the country, stronger even than the Miami Hurricanes, who beat Oklahoma, 27-14, in mid-October and own an identical 10-1 record.
"We'll just have to stand shoe to shoe and go at it," Sooners Coach Barry Switzer said.
For the first time since 1978, when the AP and UPI polls split in naming the country's No. 1 team, there may be two national champs. That year, Alabama and Southern California ended up on top. This year, Penn State stands to make it easy for everybody by playing its best game and winning what may be the dramatic finish of an otherwise unmemorable college football season. But if the Nittany Lions lose and Miami beats Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma probably will move into the top spot in the UPI poll, but AP might name the Hurricanes No. 1. Switzer said he thought it was "unfair to Joe (Paterno) and his program" that a Sooners victory "is a foregone conclusion to so many people."
Said Penn State flanker Eric Hamilton: "Just because the public doesn't think we're the best doesn't mean we're not the best. It smarts when you hear that kind of talk. Here you have two great teams playing each other. I say may the best man win . . . I mean may the best team win."
The reason questions persist is simple. Most observers doubt that Penn State will be able to stop the Sooners' powerful wishbone offense, led by the freshman Holieway. The Nittany Lions have not faced a triple-option wishbone offense all year, and none in the country is better than Oklahoma's. Holieway took over at quarterback in the second quarter of the Miami game when starter Troy Aikman went down with an ankle injury. This week, some of the Oklahoma players described his presence in the backfield as a "blessing."
After just seven starts, Holieway led the team in rushing with 760 yards and won Big Eight honors as the offensive player of the year. He also returned the team to a style of play that Switzer finds "perfect for Oklahoma football . . . His talents were easy to adapt to the option game. I think whether Troy was hurt or not, Jamelle eventually would have emerged as our man at quarterback."
"Holieway's great because he's a gambler," Penn State linebacker Trey Bauer said. "He'll improvise on any play he's called and make something out of nothing. He makes things happen out of those things not designed to happen. Who'd expect him to run for 50 yards like it was nothing after dropping back five yards to pass?"
Some people doubt the Penn State offense will be strong enough to move against the nation's best defense, one headed by all-America performers such as linebacker Brian Bosworth, nose guard Tony Casillas and defensive end Kevin Murphy. The Nittany Lions have won seven of their 11 games by one touchdown or less. John Shaffer, the quarterback, owns unimpressive statistics, completing 45 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,367 yards. But one thing about Shaffer cannot be overlooked: he has won 54 straight games as a starter, dating back to the seventh grade.
Said Paterno: "He's a fine kid, and he does one thing that's extremely important to any program -- he wins . . . He's not a beauty to watch, but you've got to admire the way he gets things done."