MIAMI, Fla. — According to the latest line in Miami, Oklahoma is a 7 1/2-point favorite over Penn State in tonight's Orange Bowl game, which tells you something about the regard oddsmakers have for the Nittany Lions' No. 1 ranking.
But after careful study, many neutral observers here believe the line is out of line.
They figure that the Sooners should be favored by twice as much, at least.
About the only thing in Penn State's favor is Coach Joe Paterno's 11-4-1 bowl record since 1967, some of those victories having been earned against teams that appeared superior until the kickoff.
Even though the Nittany Lions are 11-0, which makes them the nation's only team without a loss or a tie this season, they have seldom been impressive. They have won seven games by a touchdown or less.
The No. 3 Sooners, on the other hand, have won seven straight games by an average of 31 points since their only loss, a 27-14 upset by No. 2 Miami at Norman, Okla., Oct. 19.
Even Paterno seems to understand the point spread.
"I don't know how much more respect you can get than being voted No. 1 in both polls," Paterno said. "But after seeing Oklahoma in the last three games (victories over Nebraska, Oklahoma State and SMU), I'm impressed, too."
So it's not that Penn State gets no respect.
It's just that Oklahoma gets more.
Here are the reasons the Sooners are favored:
THE BARKING DOGS
That is the nickname for Oklahoma's defensive players, who have a pregame ritual of barking to relieve tension. Whatever works.
The Sooners have the first defense ever to finish either first or second in the four major defensive categories: scoring, rushing, passing and total defense. In five games during November, the defense did not allow a touchdown.
Their best player, perhaps the best player in the country outside of Auburn's Bo Jackson and Miami's Vinny Testaverde, is senior nose guard Tony Casillas, 6-3 and 280 pounds. Called by Coach Barry Switzer "the most dominant lineman at Oklahoma since Lee Roy Selmon," Casillas won the Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman.
But the leader of this pack of dogs is sophomore linebacker Brian Bosworth, the winner of the initial Dick Butkus Trophy as the nation's best linebacker. He barks and bites.
"We're an intimidating football team," he said. "If we have to get somebody down and scream and yell at them, we'll do it. I don't mean we cheap-shot people, but we play football the way it was intended to be played, physically."
The strength of Penn State's team is its defense, but the Nittany Lions are not nearly as aggressive as the Sooners.
Asked which Penn State defensive players impress him, Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway said, "No. 43 (Michael Zordich) is OK, and No. 95 (Rogers Alexander) is OK."
Could they start for Oklahoma?
"No," Holieway said. "No way."
Switzer continues to claim that he knows how to pronounce Jamelle, which rhymes with bell. It's not that difficult.
But Switzer continues to call him, Ja-mail.
Paterno calls him Jamie.
Learning Holieway's name is the least of Paterno's problems. The Nittany Lions have to find a way to tackle the 5-9, 175-pound freshman quarterback from Banning High School. When he runs, which is often, he looks like a waterbug.
"As far as a pure runner, he may be the best quarterback in the country," Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky said.
"There's no defense for a guy like him. You can have your guys in the right positions, draw X's and O's forever, but if you can't tackle him, then none of that stuff helps."
When sophomore Troy Aikman was starting at quarterback for the Sooners, they averaged 24 points a game. Since Holieway replaced the injured Aikman in the fifth game, the Sooners have averaged 38 points. He leads the team in rushing with 861 yards and has run for more than 100 yards in four games.
Another thing the Sooners like about Holieway is that he seldom turns the ball over. In the past, the Sooners, running a high-risk wishbone offense, sometimes fumbled eight or nine times a game. This season, they average fewer than two fumbles a game.
How cool is Holieway?
After Oklahoma had beaten Nebraska, 27-7, to earn a bid to the Orange Bowl, Holieway entered the Sooners' dressing room, saw them celebrating and asked, "What's the big deal, anyway?"
Of Holieway, Switzer said: "He's still unconscious. I hope he wakes up four years from now."
PENN ST. OFFENSE
Of Penn State's quarterback, Switzer said junior John Shaffer is most effective when he hands off to tailback D.J. Dozier and gets out of the way.
As dominant as Oklahoma's defense has been, it is vulnerable to the pass, as Miami's Testaverde proved by throwing for 270 yards in the victory over the Sooners.