SOUTH BEND -- The winning coach at last year's Orange Bowl had few game-related remarks when it was over, though he did make one lengthy campaign speech.

No sooner had Notre Dame startled Colorado's dream season with a 21-6 victory, then Lou Holtz extolled the numerous virtues of his 12-1 football team.

Given the success of his approach -- Notre Dame's irritating rival Miami was propelled to No. 1, and the Irish finished No. 2 -- he decided on a different approach for this season.

"I'm not going to campaign, politic," Holtz said after the Irish had completed a 9-2 regular season with a 10-6 victory at Southern Cal. "We didn't last year. That's not our nature."

Still, the urge to give his fifth-ranked team a little push, subtle though it wasn't, got the best of him.

"We played six teams in the final top 25 poll," he said. "We went 5-1 against it. Colorado went 4-1-1 against it. I don't believe anyone else played more than five and the best anyone did was 3-2. I really don't know. All I know is we played a very difficult schedule, but we just have to let people vote. . . . Do I think we have a chance {for No. 1}? Definitely."

There is one immediate thing gnawing at Holtz and the legion of Irish fans. The team ranked above Notre Dame -- though its record is the same and it lost the head-to-head battle between the two schools -- is those hard-to-bury Miami Hurricanes.

The Fighting Irish's case for No. 1, should they handle a No. 1-ranked Colorado team again in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day, is in the schedule.

"Personally, I feel it is a national championship game because of who we've played," said Notre Dame senior outside linebacker Andre Jones, of DeMatha High School. "I feel the race is still open."

Only Colorado, with that record of 4-1-1 against top 25 teams, can approach the Irish's schedule in degree of interest or difficulty. The Buffaloes tied Tennessee, a team Notre Dame beat on the road, and lost to Illinois.

Notre Dame knocked off No. 22 Michigan State, No. 21 USC, No. 12 Michigan and No. 4 Miami. In infuriating days at home, the Irish lost to Stanford and No. 7 Penn State by a total of eight points.

In the two losses, Heisman Trophy runner-up Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was on the field for only a half because of injuries. Besides Notre Dame's and Colorado's, the schedules of the other top five teams are decidedly minor league.

No. 2 Georgia Tech? It nudged Virginia, which has since plummeted out of the rankings. It did win its only game against a ranked team, giving No. 14 Clemson one of its two losses.

No. 3 Texas? It lost to Colorado and had wins over Penn State and Houston.

No. 4 Miami? It beat Iowa and Florida State and lost to BYU and Notre Dame.

Still, the reality of the situation is not lost on the Irish.

"We had our chance," said offensive guard Mirko Jurkovic. "We're just lucky to have another chance."

If the Irish make the climb to No. 1, it will be their third trip to the top this season. After three fumbled punts and a sidelined Ismail, Stanford beat them. A fourth-quarter interception and a sidelined Ismail were instrumental in the loss to Penn State.

If Notre Dame should make it back to the top, it wouldn't be an unprecedented jump.

"It's happened before and almost happened last year," Holtz said. "I think we have a chance. That's all we do have. Maybe I'll have something to say after the dust settles."

In 1977, when it won the national title, Notre Dame was ranked fifth before beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Alabama and Arkansas, then coached by Holtz, also had cases for being selected No. 1 after impressive bowl victories, but that honor went to the Irish.

Notre Dame didn't feel very good when Miami finished on top last season, but that choice ultimately could work in its favor this year.

With 12 wins, no one had a better record in the country than Notre Dame and it had beaten the Big Eight champion, Big Ten champion, Pac-10 champion and the East's best. Still, it finished second because the Hurricanes gave the Irish their only loss, 27-10, in their final regular season game.

So, with the same 9-2 record as Miami going into this season's bowl games, the Irish have reason to believe they're really No. 4 in the country. If it comes down to a vote between Miami and Notre Dame on Jan. 2, logic dictates the Irish will win that going away based on their 29-20 victory over the Hurricanes on Oct. 20.

Miami didn't play another ranked team the rest of the way; Notre Dame played three.

"I'm not worried about the polls," Irish all-American cornerback Todd Lyght said. "We've got as good a shot as anyone else. I just hope if everything works out, the sports writers get it right this time.

"I felt we deserved the national championship {last year}, but I can't worry about that too much."

..................(9-2-0).................

Date.......Opponent..................Score

Sept. 15...Michigan.............Won, 28-24

Sept. 22...at Michigan St.......Won, 20-19

Sept. 29...Purdue...............Won, 37-11

Oct. 6.....Stanford............Lost, 36-31

Oct. 13....Air Force............Won, 57-27

Oct. 20....Miami................Won, 29-20

Oct. 27....Pittsburgh...........Won, 31-22

Nov. 3.....Navy.................Won, 52-31

...........At E. Rutherford, N.J

Nov. 10....at Tennessee.........Won, 34-29

Nov. 17....Penn St.............Lost, 24-21

Nov. 24....Southern Cal..........Won, 10-6