KNOXVILLE, TENN., NOV. 9 -- This has not been a good year to be shouting, "We're No. 1."

Notre Dame, knocked off that lofty perch by Stanford in early October, climbed back up almost by default a week ago, when the other four members of the top five were beaten.

Nevertheless, the Irish (7-1) are trying to maintain a low profile for Saturday's game against No. 9 Tennessee, an inconsistent 5-1-2 team that is capable of playing like No. 1, as evidenced by a 45-3 rout of Florida four weeks ago.

"Tennessee is an excellent football team," said Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz. "They don't have to be at an all-time high to win this game. They're good enough to win it on their own merits.

"I don't think our defense has been very good. We're giving up 25 points and nearly 400 yards a game. I've never heard of a good team doing that. We've only held two teams under 20 points, yet it will be difficult for us to score many points against Tennessee. I'm worried."

Before Holtz is accused of blowing smoke, it should be noted that a lot of people think he has reason to be worried. The oddsmakers have made the Irish 3 1/2-point underdogs, an unusual situation for a No. 1 team. Then, there is the New York Times computer ranking, which had Notre Dame in 11th place this week.

Some folks think Notre Dame gets added votes because people expect the Irish to be the best team in college football every year, based on their recruiting of blue-chip high school athletes from around the country.

Tennessee's Johnny Majors implied as much when he noted wryly, "It doesn't take long to learn their personnel. Our staff is familiar with 90 percent of them, based on the outstanding high school careers they had. It saves you a lot of time.

"I hear a lot of talk about Notre Dame's mystique, but good players help your mystique. They're normally bigger, faster, stronger and quicker than anybody else."

Saturday's game could be evaluated as the traditional confrontation of irresistible force and immovable object.

Notre Dame is averaging 35.6 points and 434 yards a game. Sophomore quarterback Rick Mirer has completed 90 of 154 passes for 1,441 yards -- with only four interceptions -- and he can run, too, as he demonstrated last week in a 30-yard scoring sprint against Navy. Then there is Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, the multiple threat who has averaged 231 all-purpose yards in his last four games.

Tennessee, under new defensive coordinator Larry Lacewell, leads the nation in pass defense, has not allowed a rushing touchdown since its opener against Colorado, has forced 30 turnovers and recorded 21 sacks.

Offensively, the Volunteers are not bad, either, with a 412-yard average. But they have been inconsistent, losing at home to mediocre Alabama and blowing a big lead in a tie with Auburn.

Junior quarterback Andy Kelly played so poorly against Alabama that Majors benched him, but he rebounded last week with a 264-yard passing effort against Temple to regain some confidence.

The Volunteers are short at the tailback spot, with converted cornerback Tracy Smith backing up 5-foot-7 starter Tony Thompson. Chuck Webb, the hero of last year's 11-1 team as a freshman, was sidelined by an early-season knee injury and reserves Tavio Henson and Clemons McCroskey will not dress Saturday because of injuries suffered against Temple.

Chris Zorich, Notre Dame's all-American nose tackle, practiced Thursday and hopes to play Saturday, although he is well below peak form following a dislocated knee. The Irish flew in this afternoon and promptly holed up at an airport hotel rather than conduct a runthrough in the rain at Neyland Stadium, so it was not possible to gauge Zorich's flexibility.

Two other players who missed the Navy game with injuries, linebacker Andre Jones from DeMatha High and offensive guard Mirko Jurkovic, are scheduled to start Saturday.

Although this game would appear to lack the fire of recent Notre Dame-Miami meetings, it is very big in Tennessee, where about 95,000 are expected to squeeze into the stadium.

Anticipating a noisy reception, Holtz played tapes simulating crowd noise at practice sessions this week, copying the New York Giants' preparations for their visit to Washington.

"The loudest stadium I've ever been in was Miami last year," Holtz said. "We weren't even able to hear the plays in our own huddle."

Mirer's voice is not as strong as that of Tony Rice, last year's quarterback, and Mirer found himself with a sore throat today after competing with Holtz's practice noise.

"Last year we had a baritone calling the signals," Holtz said. "This year we have a soprano."