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John Underwood
December 25, 1978
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno has always advocated a playoff to determine the national championship, and this year he got it: his No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions will meet up with Bear Bryant's No. 2-ranked Alabama squad in the Sugar Bowl
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December 25, 1978

One Bowl For No. 1: The Rest For Fun

Penn State Coach Joe Paterno has always advocated a playoff to determine the national championship, and this year he got it: his No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions will meet up with Bear Bryant's No. 2-ranked Alabama squad in the Sugar Bowl

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Bear Bryant has been traveling a lot since Alabama's football season ended. He has been recruiting—successfully, one assumes—and he has been accepting with grace, and pleasure, the acclaim that accrues to a living legend (a double standing ovation at the Heisman Trophy banquet, for example). Also, being on the road gives him the opportunity to cadge a favor now and again. Bryant says the latter is coming in handy because, in order to satisfy his friends' Sugar Bowl demands, he has been scrounging tickets from New York to New Orleans. He says he might yet take care of everybody, but not to call him, he'll call you.

As this is being written, Alabama has enough money in the till from eager applicants to fill its Sugar Bowl allotment (10,000 seats) eight times over. This is because Alabama fans smell a national championship. Alabama fans know the aroma well, Bryant having spoiled them with four titles in the last 17 years, most recently in 1973. They figure once Bear throws his checked living-legend model hat ($18 retail, Gayfer's and other fine stores) into the ring, it's kismet.

The oddsmakers may have gotten a whiff, too, because although Penn State—which doesn't have spoiled fans, never having won a national championship—is unbeaten and ranked No. 1, it's only a one-point favorite. Indeed, such strange bedfellows as Jimmy the Greek and Auburn Coach Doug Barfield like the Crimson Tide. After being whomped 34-16 in the season finale by Alabama, Barfield was moved to say, "I personally don't think Penn State will be a problem for Alabama."

Well, if you're an Alabama fan and you don't think Penn State will be a problem, it's a good thing you dropped in on this story. Not even Bryant believes that. Bryant, in fact, doesn't know what to believe. The Alabama team he thought "could be great" before the season started has, indeed, been very good at times, and at times it has been off the rails throwing sparks. Bryant came down off his tower at practice the week of the Auburn game to do some old-fashioned Bear hugging and to get a better look. He still wasn't sure what he saw. After the game, an Alabama knockout in the second half, he asked the milling press, "You tell me how good we are."

Well, Bear, since you asked....

The Crimson Tide is now mostly over its rash of early injuries and has come again to be a bona fide load, worthy of partaking in the championship business. It is a typical Bryant team in that no other team plays the total game—all facets, phases, gambits and deceits—as well. Except, maybe, Penn State. And maybe Southern California.

A tag-team match in New Orleans between these three teams is out, of course, and if that's too bad, it's not entirely unfair. After an early victory over Alabama, USC lost its edge with the electorate in both the AP and UPI polls by losing to Arizona State and by having spells of ordinariness in the stretch. While Alabama and Penn State got better, USC got third-ranked, and thus is left to cry its way to the Rose Bowl bank and to hope for a Sugar Bowl tie.

By any measure, and whatever its implications, Penn State-Alabama is an exquisite pairing. Two teams that run and pass; that play stout, intimidating defense; that have sound kicking games; and that hardly ever fall in the cake once the party starts. And there's an added attraction: next to Bryant (and perhaps Woody Hayes), no football coach in the country gets as much attention as Joe Paterno.

At a Penn State coaches' meeting the other day, Paterno was asked by an assistant how he figured to play Alabama. "To tell you the truth, I have no idea," said Joe, peering intently through his trademark black-rimmed glasses. What he meant, he said, was that Alabama is "unquestionably" the toughest assignment Penn State could have drawn. Other possible opponents (Oklahoma, Nebraska, et al.) lack Alabama's offensive balance; in Paterno's words, they "couldn't have jammed the ball down our throats and don't pass well enough to hurt us." Still others (Houston, Notre Dame, et al.) "don't play defense as well." In short, he hadn't found an obvious place for a toehold against Alabama.

What usually results when such well-rounded teams play, teams that are especially strong defensively, is that the collision jars fans to the upper deck, and the score winds up 0-0. Or so low and so close that the first crucial fumble, or the last crucial penalty, is decisive.

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