SOUTH BEND, IND., SEPT. 14 -- Now we get to find out if Mo knows.

Gary Moeller, assistant coach to Bo Schembechler for 17 years at the University of Michigan, brings his fourth-ranked Wolverines to this football-frenzied town Saturday night for a prime-time showdown against No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (9 p.m, WUSA-TV-9).

Notre Dame Stadium, where the Fighting Irish have won 17 consecutive games dating from November 1986, will be filled to its 59,075-seat capacity and bathed in the glow of portable floodlights. Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz will be attempting to leave behind a preseason fraught with controversy. The Wolverines will be seeking to end a three-game losing streak against Notre Dame, an achievement that would put Moeller well on his way to establishing his own identity.

"I talked to him today," said Schembechler, who left Michigan in January after 21 seasons and now is president of the Detroit Tigers. "He's definitely up for the game."

Bo's voice went into pregame.

"You've got to understand. Gary Moeller is the type of coach who's been constantly studying the game in terms of visiting other schools during spring ball, visiting pro teams, talking to other coaches. He's always inquisitive about the new things in football. He has a tremendous mind because he studies the game so constantly. He'll do just fine. I mean, I couldn't have left if I didn't feel that way."

Moeller served as acting head coach for Michigan's victory in the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl, which Schembechler missed because of heart bypass surgery. But that doesn't mean he has been anxiety-free this week. Asked about the emotions he was feeling, he said: "Well, about everything.

"I'm excited, yet extremely nervous. As a coach, you start thinking about bad things happening. That's something I'm trying to stay away from. But I guess I'm like the kids -- kind of worried about fumbling, kind of worried about throwing the ball away."

"It's not completely a live-or-die situation," said Moeller, who compiled a 6-24-3 record in a three-season head-coaching stint at Illinois that began with a 37-9 loss to Michigan in 1977. "Obviously, as a new coach, you want to get off on the right foot. It helps your morale and it keeps the fans jacked up."

Particularly when getting off on the right foot means defeating Notre Dame. Its season opening opponent every year since 1985, Notre Dame has defeated Michigan in each of the last three. The Wolverines have not lost to the same opponent in four consecutive seasons since they lost five straight to Purdue from 1962 to 1966. But what galls Michigan the most about all of this is the way it has lost its last two games against Notre Dame.

In 1988, Notre Dame scored on four field goals by walk-on kicker Reggie Ho and an 81-yard punt return by Ricky Watters. Michigan kicker Mike Gillette, whose 49-yard field goal with 5 1/2 minutes gave the Wolverines a 17-16 lead, missed a 48-yarder as time expired. Final score: 19-17.

Last season, it was the Fighting Irish's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the second half and a 24-19 loss.

"We know that Notre Dame is not that good a team as far as beating us the last three years," said senior safety Vada Murray. "We know they're a good ballteam, but not that good."

Adding to the intrigue is Michigan's hiring in July of Mike Bossary, then a graduate assistant at Notre Dame.

But Holtz's biggest concern so far this season -- other than preparing pass-oriented sophomore quarterback Rick Mirer to take over for option-minded Tony Rice -- has been dealing with allegations of steroid-use, improper recruiting and mistreatment of players in his program.

"This has been a difficult time," he said, "the one time it has affected my preparation."

There seems to be little doubt about the ability of Mirer, who grew up worshipping the Wolverines but turned them down after developing into the nation's top-rated high school quarterback as a senior. However he played just 36 minutes last season.

"There's pressure involved," he said, "but this is what I wanted, to be able to start for a team like this."

He faces an experienced Michigan secondary, but is surrounded by talented players like Ismail, the junior who will add returning punts to his current jobs of flanker, tailback and kickoff returner. Notre Dame also has senior tailback Watters, senior tailback Tony Brooks and junior fullback Rodney Culver.

Possible weaknesses for the Fighting Irish are the offensive line, where only two starters return, and the secondary, where only all-America cornerback Todd Lyght is back. But their defensive front, which includes Andre Jones, a senior linebacker from Hyattsville's DeMatha High School, is ferocious with linemen Chris Zorich and George Williams and linebacker Michael Stonebreaker.

Jerrod Bunch is Michigan's only returning starter at the so-called skill positions, although sophomore quarterback Elvis Grbac completed 17 of 21 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame last season after Michael Taylor was injured. In addition, the Wolverines' five starting offensive linemen, who average 6 feet 5 and 288 pounds, are the same ones from last season.

It's just the season opener, but the front page of Thursday's South Bend Tribune carried two stories above the fold. The one on the left side was about the crisis in the Persian Gulf. The one on the right was about the ticket market for Saturday night's game.

When Schembechler said, "This is a big game coming up," you knew he was not talking about the Tigers' tilt tonight against the Yankees.

"One thing I do know," Schembechler said, "I'll watch it by myself."