HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIF., DEC. 31 -- He is possibly the smartest player on what might be the best college football team in the nation, and still someone had to teach Ed Cunningham, the University of Washington's scholarly center, how to move.

How to position his feet. How to deliver the ball to Huskies quarterback Mark Brunell. How to snap and slide at the same time.

"If you don't move while you're snapping," Cunningham said, "it's over."

Had the finer points of hiking a football come as easy to Cunningham as math or French, the Alexandria native might have been an all-American by now. Instead, he has to settle for Academic All-America honors -- and the chance to play in the Rose Bowl as a junior.

That opportunity will come Tuesday in Pasadena, as he and his linemates try to protect Brunell and speedsters Greg Lewis and Beno Bryant when the Huskies meet Iowa in the 77th Rose Bowl.

It was a game that, until both teams suffered late-season losses, was expected to help determine 1990's national champion. But once again, America's No. 1 ranking will be earned elsewhere.

Nevertheless, Washington (9-2), which fell from second to ninth in the poll after a 25-22 loss to UCLA on Nov. 10, hasn't changed its approach.

"We still have a shot to be ranked really high," said Cunningham, an all-district, all-region and all-state lineman at Mount Vernon High. "We've got to win this game. This is our season. It's a matter of pride for us."

To triumph in this rematch of the 1982 Rose Bowl -- won by Washington, 28-0 -- the Huskies will have to stop a team with a potent tailback duo and a versatile quarterback, perhaps the most balanced backfield in the Big Ten.

Iowa's Nick Bell and Tony Stewart ran for almost 1,800 yards between them. Matt Rodgers threw for 2,032 yards and 14 touchdowns. The longer they keep the ball from Lewis, who said he would play without a knee brace -- a result of arthroscopic surgery in November -- and Bryant, the better the Hawkeyes' chances of winning the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1959.

"I would love to see both -- but only on the other sideline," said Iowa Coach Hayden Fry, who claims the Huskies, the "finest football team we've seen," have more speed than Miami, which ran past the Hawkeyes, 48-21, in September. Lewis and Bryant "are exceptional athletes. Bryant must be the equivalent of Bob Hayes."

Cunningham isn't quite ready to group himself with Bern Brostek, a four-year starter for the Huskies who left Washington as a 1990 first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams.

But with little more than practice experience at the position when the season began, Cunningham started all 11 games at center -- he and guard Dean Kirkland were the only Huskies linemen to do so -- and served as the anchor for a unit that averages 288.6 pounds per man.

Cunningham started with the Huskies as a guard, moved to tackle briefly in 1989, then was asked to replace Brostek, an all-American and a member of Washington's growing alumni club (Brostek is the eighth) of NFL centers.

All that moving around might have confused some people. Cunningham, who is 6 feet 3 and 280 pounds, picks things up quickly, though. A member of several honor societies, he was Virginia Scholar Athlete of the Year in 1987 and expects to earn his business administration degree in the spring.

"This is the first year that I've really settled in to a position," he said. "It makes things easier."

Said Washington offensive line coach Keith Gilbertson: "I think it was good for Ed to move to a new position. Any time you lose an all-American, there's cause for concern. But he established himself. We wouldn't have had this much success unless someone came along at center."

"He struggled a little bit but, like our quarterback, he got better," Washington Coach Don James said of Cunningham. "He needed experience."

Iowa (8-3), though not as blitz-oriented as the Huskies, has plenty of players to keep Cunningham occupied. Hawkeyes nose guard Rod Davis and roaming linebackers Melvin Foster and John Derby are Fry's big hitters on defense.

Even without all-Big Ten defensive tackle Jim Johnson, who strained his left knee Friday in practice and won't play, Fry expects to put sufficient pressure on Brunell, Lewis and Bryant.