Irish Courting Mediocrity

Hair-raising thrills, men squaring off in battle, enough twists and turns to keep the sports pages filled.

Notre Dame on the field?

Heck no, Notre Dame in court.

After months of exchanging legal briefs, the Irish finally take their football case to the people in an effort to forget the sorriest off-season in school history.

Sadly, the football squad also has its problems.

Coming off a 7-6 season that ended with an Independence Bowl loss to Louisiana State, Notre Dame could have used a confidence booster to start the season.

Instead, the Irish draw Michigan, which nine returning starters from its national title team and recruited perhaps the best high school quarterback, Drew Henson, and running back, Justin Fargas.

While trying to move forward, the Irish take a step back, handing the quarterback job to Jarious Jackson who, unlike Ron Powlus, is suited to run the punishing option offense preferred by former coach Lou Holtz.

"Jarious Jackson is the one element in the Notre Dame team that we are not able to simulate," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said this week. "We'll have to adjust to his speed and athleticism when we get to South Bend. . . . He is going to cause some missed tackles in there. "

A Notre Dame victory not only would do wonders in easing Notre Dame's recent pain, it would rank as one of the most important in recent school lore.

The Irish need to catch the Wolverines changing gears in dynasty transition. Carr is hoping junior Tom Brady can replace graduated quarterback Brian Griese. If not, Carr won't hesitate using Henson, the prized freshman.

Also look for Fargas, the former Southern California prep star, to get an early look.

'I've always felt the best way to bring a young back along is to play him in a big game early and see how he does," Carr said.

ON TV

RATINGS

**** Don't leave the recliner

*** The yardwork can wait

** OK to flip to fishing show.

* For pro scouts only

** No. 10 Tennessee at No. 17 Syracuse, ESPN, 9 a.m.

Tee Martin picks the right time and opponent to make his debut as Peyton Manning's successor at quarterback. Syracuse historically waits until October to dig in, starting 1-4 last season and 0-2 in 1996.

The line: Syracuse by one.

TCU at Iowa State, 9:30 a.m., FSW2

No rating. Viewer discretion advised.

The line: Iowa State by four.

* Wake Forest at Air Force, 10 a.m., ESPN2

Brian Kuklick threw for 2,180 yards in the Forest last year, but did anyone see it? Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry runs the best option offense outside Lincoln, Neb.

The line: Wake Forest by one.

** Kentucky at Louisville, noon, FSW

Watch Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Tim Couch throw Kentucky's kitchen-sink offense at the Cardinals.

The line: Kentucky by 11.

* Vanderbilt at Mississippi State, 3 p.m., ESPN2

Vanderbilt Coach Woody Widenhofer, a defensive guru, continues his search for a long-lost offense, his, as he breaks in a quarterback, Hi Lewis, who has yet to throw a pass in college.

The line: Mississippi State by 12,

* Illinois at Washington State, 3:30 p.m., FSW

Washington State finally lures a Big Ten school to postcard Pullman and is pleased as punch that the school is Illinois, 0-11 last season and loser of 17 straight games dating back to the Lou Tepper era.

The line: Washington State by 13 1/2.

** BYU at Alabama, 4 p.m., ESPN

A one-time hurricane downgraded to tropical storm as both programs struggle to reclaim national personas. BYU finished 6-5 last season and couldn't throw the ball; Alabama was 4-7 and rated an un-Bear-able 11th in Southeastern Conference total defense.

The line: Alabama by four.

*** No. 1 Ohio State at No. 11 West Virginia, 5 p.m., Channel 2

Buckeye Coach John Cooper puts a bounty on the administrator who booked this possible national-title buster, Ohio State's first road opener in 23 years. It's a return game for a 1987 trip West Virginia made to Columbus.

The line: Ohio State by 10 1/2.

** Colorado at No. 15 Colorado State in Denver, 7 p.m., ESPN

In a game that was moved downtown by popular demand, Colorado Coach Rick Neuheisel tries desperately to win back the state after watching the rival Rams move past his Buffaloes as the Rocky Mountains' top collegiate force.

The line: Colorado State by three.

*** No. 18 Washington at No. 8 Arizona State, 7 p.m., FSW

Pac-10 heavyweights square off in a "Football After Dark" special with conference and national title implications. Too bad it won't make the Sunday papers back east. Starring Washington quarterback Brock Huard, returning for another season, and a limited supporting cast.

The line: Arizona State by 6 1/2.

5 THINGS TO LOOK FOR

1. UNLV at Northwestern. (Tipster's Bowl) If there aren't 100 federal agents swarming the joint, somebody needs a breath test. UNLV, a craps' roll away from every major sports book on the strip, travels to Evanston in a matchup rich with irony, given the ongoing revelations regarding Northwestern's game-fixing proclivities.

2. Central Florida at Louisiana Tech. A terrific pairing of up-and-coming Division I independents. And there might not be a better matchup of quarterbacks this season than Tim Rattay versus Daunte Culpepper. Rattay scorched vaunted Nebraska last week for 590 yards, completing 28 of 68 passes. Culpepper is a longshot Heisman candidate and top-five pick in next April's NFL draft. Rattay and Culpepper last season threw for 6,967 yards and 59 touchdowns.

3. The short countdown to Joe Paterno's 300th win at Penn State begins at Happy Valley when the Nittany Lions host Southern Mississippi. If Paterno wins his 299th on Saturday, he'll bag No. 300 next week at home against Bowling Green, the school Paterno defeated for No. 200.

Paterno needs only to reach 300 victories sometime this season to become the coach to reach the plateau in the fewest games.

4. Ronald Curry, the highly prized recruit who spurned Virginia to attend North Carolina, won the No. 2 quarterback spot behind starter Oscar Davenport before this week's opener against Miami of Ohio. Curry, a two-sport star in high school, said he would have joined the Tar Heels' basketball team on Oct. 15, had he not earned the backup QB spot. With Davenport's history of injuries, Curry could be in the lineup sooner than expected.

5. Wisconsin tackle Aaron Gibson, the biggest thing to hit San Diego since Shamu, thunders into Qualcomm Stadium on Saturday as the Badgers meet San Diego State. Gibson, 6-feet-7 and 371 pounds, requires a specially-made helmet and stands a good chance of rewriting San Diego's fish-taco eating records.

DUFRESNE'S TOP 25

1: Florida State: 1-0: Whew. For a half, Texas A&M; gave Rank Man the heebie-jeebies.

2: Arizona State: Stock-car strategy: draft on FSU the way Sosa has on McGwire.

3: Ohio State: Buckeyes are busing to Morgantown; could be walking home.

4: Michigan: Brady opens at QB, but freshman Drew Henson waits on deck.

5: Florida: Coming to bookstores: "Steve Spurrier's 101 Ways to Score on Citadel."

6: Nebraska:1-0: Cornhusker cover men ordered to backpedal to class this week.

7: UCLA: Refuses to start season until NBA lockout has been lifted.

8: North Carolina: QB Ronald Curry almost gets the bends coming up the depth chart.

9: Kansas State: Might have faced toughest opponent in spring game.

10 LSU: Can't wait to meet Notre Dame again in Independence Bowl.

11: Colorado State:1-0: Beat up on Michigan State with good old-fashioned WAC football.

12: West Virginia: Mountaineer fans welcome Ohio State to town with open arms, and clenched fists.

13: Tennessee: Is it sacrilege to think Volunteers will be better with QB Tee Martin?

14: Texas A&M;: 0-1: The Aggies were one-half as good as Florida State.

15: Virginia: No comment until I break down film of Thursday night's Auburn game.

16: Syracuse: Maybe this is the year QB McNabb lives up to the hype.

17: Washington: Ah, good luck there in September at ASU, home to BYU and at Nebraska.

18: Wisconsin: What's new? Talented Ron Dayne starts the season with a bum wheel.

19: Penn State: Joe Pa needs two wins to reach No. 300, 25 to catch Bear Bryant.

20: Southern Mississippi: Coach Jeff Bower needs 257 wins to reach 300, 270 to catch Bryant.

21 Georgia: Donnan finally decides on QB, Quincy Carter. Now, where to dinner?

22: Arizona: Tomey returns to Hawaii to the sound of one hand clapping.

23: Notre Dame: Now what exactly, Mr. DuBose, is battery by bodily waste?

24: Texas: Earl Campbell looks good, feels great, ready to take it to UCLA.

25: Louisiana Tech offense: Biggest rampage at Lincoln since Lawrence Phillips' last spring break.

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