MIAMI, DEC. 30 -- Oklahoma's familiarity with bowl games and national championships is such that by now the top-ranked Sooners are unafraid to break the most solemn rules and curfews. They have romped through Hialeah, danced with prom queens in Coconut Grove and occupied permanent tables at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach. They frequent a spot called the Surrey Pub so often that it is decorated year-round with Oklahoma pennants.
Coach Barry Switzer calls the Fountainbleu Hotel "our winter home," the Sooners taking over the lavish old palace for the fourth consecutive New Year. This time the sense of ownership is pervasive, because when the undefeated Sooners meet unbeaten No. 2 Miami in the Orange Bowl to decide the national championship on New Year's night, it is with the knowledge that they can become masters of all they survey in college football. A victory would give them their second national championship in four seasons and make them arguably the dominant team of the last half-decade.
But this game also marks the end of something for Oklahoma, which in part explains the unabashed nightly forays. Five all-Americas and 13 starters will be ending their eligibility for a team that in the last three years lost but twice, both times to Miami. They have the longest winning streak in the nation, 20 straight.
No doubt the talent-rich Sooners will replace this team with something comparable, but whether it will be as memorable is in doubt. For two straight seasons these Sooners have led the nation in a record six NCAA categories, recalling the Sooner heydays of 1974-75, when they won back-to-back titles. Nor has any team perhaps save for Miami displayed as outrageous a personality.
Quarterback Jamelle Holieway wears furs that look like they came from a bait and tackle shop, while his gold jewelry would make a fashion designer hiss through his teeth. Sidelined with a knee injury, he spends much of his time at the Crab House, where he admires the charms of a certain hostess.
Biscayne Baby in Coconut Grove is such a welcoming nightclub that even Switzer made a brief journey with his team. He left early, while his charges remained to wonder at the guy in the poodle skirt dancing by himself. "That just isn't right," defensive lineman Darren Kilpatrick said. "I would like to talk to him about what the problem is."
But underneath the careless veneer of the Sooners lurks a team that wants a victory in the Orange Bowl very deeply. How else to explain another 11-0 season after losing starting quarterback Holieway and fullback Lydell Carr to knee injuries, although Carr recovered enough and will start Friday. Redshirt freshman quarterback Charles Thompson proved a discovery in leading Oklahoma to a 17-7 victory over then-No. 1 Nebraska to win the Big Eight Conference again.
"We're playing the Hurricanes, they've beaten us twice, and this is just not a routine game," senior all-America tight end Keith Jackson said. "This is for pride. I don't care if we play in Alaska."
Despite the injuries, their gizmo wishbone offense -- led by a line that Switzer called his best ever and includes two all-Americas -- averaged a nation's best 499.7 yards. The defense -- with three all-Americas including safety Rickey Dixon -- held teams to just 7.5 points, also No. 1.
Their 1985 national championship came with a freshman- and sophomore-dominated team that beat Penn State, 25-10, in the Orange Bowl. In the three-year span, their two losses were to the Hurricanes by 27-14 in the 1985 season, and then by 28-16 in the fourth game of last season. Otherwise they would be 35-0 and seeking a third straight title. The loss cost them last year's national championship; they defeated Arkansas in the Orange Bowl to finish No. 3 while Miami lost the title to Penn State in the Fiesta.
"No matter where I'm at, I hear it," all-America offensive guard Mark Hutson said. "Why can't we beat Miami? It's the only team we can't beat. I don't know. I'd take Switzer's job if I did."
Miami's ability to halt Oklahoma's progress is commonly thought to be a result of the Hurricanes' pro-style offense, led by passers like Vinny Testaverde and now sophomore Steve Walsh, who threw for 2,249 yards. Oklahoma's secondary is unused to seeing the pass, while the wishbone is too ground-oriented to come from behind. But the problem may be more general: the Hurricanes simply perhaps have been more talented.
"I have no excuses," Switzer said of the past. "The better team won. Hopefully they're just not as good this year."
The wishbone is capable of beating conventional passing teams. Since Darrell Royal introduced the offense to college football at Texas in 1968, almost half of the national championships have been won by wishbone teams; in the last 18 years the count is eight, including three for Oklahoma.
The offense, minus Holieway, revolves around Thompson, Jackson and Carr. The latter two may personify the recalcitrance and little-known heart of what is otherwise thought to be a foppish team.
Both seniors have been role players in an offense that doesn't necessarily suit them, and both had considered transferring. But they chose team national championship hopes over individual numbers elsewhere.
Injured, Carr wept in the locker room before the Nebraska game and asked them to make it to the Orange Bowl so he could play in a final title game. "When they need it, strap it on me," Carr said.
Jackson has twice made all-America, and this season was a finalist for the Lombardi Award despite just 13 catches (358 yards, four touchdowns). He thought of transferring to UCLA with quarterback Troy Aikman, who has become a Heisman candidate, but stayed.
"I'd like to be remembered as a guy who gave it up for the Sooners, did his job and loved his players," Jackson said.
But if any Oklahoma seniors have something to prove it is the secondary, where Dixon, David Vickers and Derrick White have taken the blame. In the losses to Miami, Testaverde threw for six touchdowns.
Whether Oklahoma's wishbone can hold off futuristic Miami and label this era its own is a question college football cerebrals wait decades for. But it's a deeply personal matter to the Sooners, who don't want to be remembered as the team that never beat Miami.
"That would be something to remember for life," Holieway said. "That would be hard."