The expression ''We're No. 1'' may be the most abused and over-used in the sports idiom, yet to say it with genuine feeling on New Year's night still carries special meaning. Penn State's football players should know, judging from their convincing utterances following a 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia.
That triumph all but guaranteed the Nittany Lions the top spot in both wire service polls, which in the playoff-less world of big-time college football is redeemable for a mythical national championship.
Logically, Penn State cannot be denied its first such crown. After all, the Sugar Bowl was that rarity in post-season play, an unofficial title match pairing the first- and second-ranked teams. ABC-TV even went so far as to declare it the ''National Championship,'' a status that most agreed with, but seemed a bit presumptuous even so.
What basically remained unmentioned until late in the game was that Southern Methodist supporters felt their team should be in consideration.
After all, the Mustangs did complete an undefeated season earlier in the day by knocking off Pittsburgh in the Cotton Bowl, 7-3 to finish 11-0-1. No other major team could match that record - not Penn State, Georgia, or Nebraska, each of whom wound up 11-1.
Still, it was rather apparent that SMU could only hope to become the season's Avis. After all, the Mustangs entered the Cotton Bowl fourth in both the writers' and coaches' polls, behind the above-mentioned trio even though Penn State and No. 3 Nebraska had been beaten while SMU's slate was marred only by a tie against Arkansas.
Determining the wire rankings, of course, has never been a cut-and-dried process in which team records are fed into a computer. In this case, the pollsters were obviously not as impressed by SMU's success as they might have been.
Perhaps the Mustangs' schedule was considered less demanding than Penn State's, or their offensive power no match for Nebraska's. Or maybe voters were put off by Coach Bobby Collins's decision to settle for that tie by disdaining a two-point conversion attempt late in the game. Whatever the reasons, polls are a strange and wonderful creation of college football, a flashpoint of interest, debate, and sometimes exasperation.
Penn State certainly knew the latter to be true. Under Coach Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions had turned in perfect seasons in 1968, 1969, and 1973 without ever securing the No. 1 ranking. ''In my mind, we won three national championships,'' Paterno said reflecting on those campaigns as he displayed a ''championship'' ring from the '73 season, a rembrance of the team's top finish in the ''Paterno poll.''
No self-congratulatory efforts should be required this time after the Saturday night game in which the conservatively clad Pennsylvanians made believers out of 78,000 spectators in New Orleans' Superdome. For a while, it even appeared Penn State would coast to victory as the Nittany Lions mounted a 20-3 advantage late in the first half.
Suddenly, however, the Bulldogs dropped their attempts to force feed Herschel Walker to a defense geared to contain him. Though not known for his passing, John Lastinger started throwing, and within 39 seconds had moved the team 66 yards for a touchdown. That made things 20-10 and broke Penn State's momentum.
Then, when the teams came out of the locker room, Lastinger engineered another drive that culminated with Walker crashing into the end zone from a yard out.
As the game progressed it became more and more clear that the efforts of Walker (103 yards) and Penn State's Curt Warner (117 yards) would offset one another, and that passing would probably, in one way or another, decide things.
Penn State seemingly had the edge in this department with Todd Blackledge at quarterback, but the Georgia pass rush, quiet early, was wreaking its fair share of havoc now. In the fourth quarter, though, Blackledge caught Georgia looking for a run on first down, and instead arched a 48-yard TD into the hands of a streaking Gregg Garrity.
That made it 27-17, and from then on Penn State knew its chief job was to man the barricades and hold the ball. Georgia eventually cut the margin with a touchdown pass, but saw time run out on its attempt to win a second national championship in three years.
Pittsburgh had actually been the pre-season No. 1 choice of many experts, but never really achieved the promise expected of it. In the Cotton Bowl the potentially potent Panther offense was held to less than a touchdown for the first time since 1975.
In the Orange Bowl Nebraska had its hands full with underdog Louisiana State, which finished the regular season poorly but owned victories over three Top 10 teams. Nebraska practically was added to the list by committing six turnovers, yet came from behind for a 21-20 victory. In the Rose Bowl, UCLA overpowered Michigan 24-14.