SOUTH BEND, IND., OCT. 19 -- Students are selling "Catholics vs. Convicts III" T-shirts on the campus of Notre Dame and it is sure to be the required uniform Saturday when Miami comes to town.

Once again it is Miami and Notre Dame, and once again talk of the national championship is in the forefront. That hasn't changed.

What is different is that this will be the last of a series. Despite No. 2 Miami's efforts to continue the rivalry, No. 6 Notre Dame has refused, saying that it is booked until the year 2000. So hook up the VCR.

It has become the most intense and decisive series in college football over the last five years, possibly the decade. Since 1987 the team left standing after a Miami-Notre Dame game has ended national champion.

"We both have a loss," said Miami Coach Dennis Erickson of the 4-1 teams. "But it's still the biggest game around. We both have a chance to win the national championship.

"It is the best rivalry in college football. Two of the best programs in the country playing each other. You just hate to see a rivalry like that end. It's the kind of rivalry that keeps college football alive."

Said Notre Dame linebacker Michael Stonebreaker: "When you have this kind of game with these kinds of teams, it's the game of the year. It's big on big."

Another Irish linebacker, senior Andre Jones, seemed to take the series' death to heart, saying, "I personally feel this series should go on."

Will it? Probably some day. But that won't help ease the pain of those who will miss the annual clash, usually full of some of the best college football -- and trash talk -- of the year.

It wasn't always like that. The series began quietly in 1955 and did not evolve into a regular smash until 1971. Even then, a rivalry had not been forged. At the time, Miami took its beatings in order to get better, and it gave opponents a chance to take a nice road trip to a warm-weather climate.

Former Notre Dame athletic director Moose Krause initiated the series as sort of a gift to the boys for a season well done.

"In those years, we had no bowl games, so I wanted something that would be a treat to the football team," Krause said. "That's how we ended up playing Miami."

Of course, Notre Dame abused the Hurricanes for most of the series, winning 11 consecutive games from the late 1960s to 1980. It was in the beginning of the last decade that Miami forged the foundation of a national power, inserting a pro-style passing attack under coach Howard Schnellenberger.

It was the beginning of some of the most memorable games in college football.

Like in 1985, the year Jimmy Johnson's no-move hairdo made its way to the big time. Johnson, now the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, obliterated Gerry Faust in his last year as coach of the Irish, 58-7.

Like in 1989, when Miami won by 17 points and converted a third-and-44 play in the fourth quarter.

But can anyone forget 1988 and the Rumble in the Tunnel? Punches were exchanged between the two teams in the tunnel before the game, and after 60 minutes of football a missed Miami conversion led to a 31-30 Notre Dame victory.

Both coaches said this week there would be no repeat of what happened two years ago.

"I can only coach one football team and that's the University of Notre Dame," said Coach Lou Holtz, who spent a week with Erickson in January as coaches at the Hula Bowl. "I don't expect a problem. I talked to Coach Erickson and he doesn't expect a problem. I'm confident he can handle his squad and I think I can handle ours."

The loser of this week's game is out of contention for the national title. Both coaches know this, and both are saying that playing the other team is like playing the San Francisco 49ers. Holtz said Miami has the best offense he has seen in 21 years of coaching; Erickson said Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country. Somewhere in between lies the truth.

The Hurricanes have one of the most impressive offenses in college football. Miami, favored by 3 1/2 points, is averaging 492.2 yards and 37.2 points a game. Quarterback Craig Erickson, with top receivers such as Wesley Carroll, Randal Hill and tight end Rob Chudzinski, directs one of the top passing attacks in the nation. Erickson has completed 105 of 184 passes (.571) for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns with only two interceptions.

Miami also has found a running attack. The Hurricanes brutalized Florida State (at the time ranked No. 2) for 334 yards on 52 carries.

"After last season we thought we had to come up with a more effective running game," Dennis Erickson said. And they have.

Notre Dame's young secondary has had problems stopping the pass, but the Irish still have the Rocket, Raghib Ismail, the fleet flanker who is one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners. He alone can influence the outcome of any game.

"We have to get ahead early," said Miami lineman Mike Sullivan. "If the game is close, Notre Dame finds a way to beat you, especially at home."