MIAMI, DEC. 31 -- Oklahoma's manly gem wear has been much disparaged and Miami's social graces have been debated. Thank goodness they've banned beer, for as Oklahoma defensive back Rickey Dixon remarked of what happens when the Sooners and Hurricanes meet in a game as big as the Orange Bowl for the national championship: "It's like being in a bad neighborhood."
Under normal circumstances, the meeting of unbeaten No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Miami in the 54th annual Orange Bowl Friday (WRC-TV-4, WMAR-TV-2, 8 p.m.) would cause enough commotion to at least knock some fruit off those floats they are so famous for down here.
But Miami linebacker George Mira Jr. and Hurricanes offensive lineman John O'Neill obscured all that by failing NCAA prebowl drug tests and taking their suspensions for the game to a Dade County Circuit Court today. They also appealed administratively to the NCAA for reinstatement, but were turned down.
None of which has much to do with what will occur at the Orange Bowl Friday night. The garish, ebullient Sooners are attempting to win their second national championship in three years to go with their 1985 title. The chattering, intimidating Hurricanes are attempting to overcome three straight New Year's Day failures, including last season's loss to Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. The only title in school history came in 1983.
"It's two bad guys battling to be No. 1," injured Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway said. "Nobody else made it. It's not our fault."
What matters is an Oklahoma wishbone offense that averages 499 yards a game and a defense that has held teams to just over seven points a contest, both No. 1 in the country. Miami's pro-style offense averaged 35.6 points while its defense held teams to 10.1 points.
Beyond statistics is the argument of whether Oklahoma's triple-threat wishbone and a Big Eight, 50-front defense unschooled in stopping the pass can finally defeat the more elegant Miami offense and classic 4-3 defense. The Hurricanes are the only team to defeat Oklahoma in the last three years, winning by 28-14 in 1985 and by 28-16 last season in a game that cost the Sooners a shot at the national championship.
Whether the outcome is different this time would appear to depend largely on two young but adept quarterbacks who have proven themselves over the course of their seasons, but have never played in a game of this magnitude. Oklahoma redshirt freshman Charles Thompson was summoned when Holieway tore knee ligaments last month. Miami's Steve Walsh replaced Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde, who threw six touchdown passes in the two victories over Oklahoma.
Thompson is a slight but searingly fast operator of the wishbone who rushed for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 105 carries, and threw for 232 yards and two more scores. What the Sooners lost in Holieway's durability and expertise, Thompson made up for with his speed and confidence as he led the Sooners to a 17-7 victory over then-No. 1 Nebraska to get to the Orange Bowl.
"You still have those who don't believe I can win a national title for Oklahoma," Thompson said. "It's exciting for me to prove them wrong."
Walsh is called efficient and intelligent, but rarely talented in the way that Miami's other recent quarterbacks -- Testaverde, Bernie Kosar and Jim Kelly -- have been. Nevertheless, he completed 176 of 298 passes for 2,249 yards and 19 touchdowns, with just seven interceptions. He also rallied the Hurricanes from a 19-3 deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat No. 3 Florida State and get the Orange Bowl bid.
"Everyone says I'm playing within my limitations, but I must have pretty broad ones if we're 11-0," Walsh said. "There have been question marks all year about me, but I think I've done well. I'm not a Heisman winner who can throw 70 yards, but I can throw 50 or 60 yards, and that's enough this year."
Offenses will be the more closely watched, but as in most games between top-ranked teams, the important question is who can stop the other. Oklahoma's defense was No. 1 in the nation against the pass, but that was accomplished mostly in a conference in which teams rarely throw.
Equally important is the pass rush of all-America end Darrell Reed, who had eight sacks, five more tackles for losses and caused three fumbles this season. A pass rush is one thing Miami hasn't seen much of this season -- one reason for Walsh's lack of interceptions.
Miami's defense tends to be ignored, but it created 226 turnovers and allowed 21 scoring drives on 135 attempts by opponents. The loss of leading tackler Mira was a blow, but sophomore replacement Bernard Clark reportedly makes up in physical play what he lacks in experience. In his one start this season, he made a game-high 19 tackles against East Carolina.
"When one guy is out, you just have to play better," defensive back Bennie Blades said. "You have to make it like a chain link fence; you get tighter."
Injuries will also play a role. Oklahoma lost defensive tackle Darren Kilpatrick when he strained ligaments in practice this week. Miami lost offensive lineman Matt Patchan to a similar injury during passing drills. That leaves the Hurricanes with a reshuffled line.
But those circumstances don't necessarily detract from the game, and they probably balance out in the end. Conventional wisdom says national championship teams can replace good players with other good ones, so the team that copes best will be the most deserving.