- Associated Press - Saturday, September 29, 2012

SOUTH BEND, IND. (AP) - This is what it used to feel like at Notre Dame. The exhilaration, the hope _ days likes these once were a regular part of fall on campus as much as the annual burst of colors on the main quad.

Now, the 4-0 start by the Fighting Irish is their best in a decade, the first time they’ve cracked the top 10 (at No. 10) in six years. There even is talk about linebacker Manti Te'o as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

While skeptics roll their eyes, it’s a time for fans of one of the nation’s most celebrated programs to savor.

And to worry.

Notre Dame is painfully aware of pitfalls ahead, with games against No. 8 Stanford, at No. 13 Southern California, at No. 16 Oklahoma and against Miami in Chicago on Oct. 6.

Will this be a season like 1988, when the Irish raced to a 4-0 record and won the national title? Or even 1989 or 1993, when seasons that began with 4-0 runs ended in bowl victories and a No. 2 ranking?

Or will it be like 2002, when Tyrone Willingham’s first team won eight straight and then collapsed; or Gerry Faust’s second team, which opened by beating Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State and Miami, only to finish 6-4-1 and miss a bowl game?

Coach Brian Kelly believes this start shows the Irish can win consistently.

“The team is 4-0 and has beaten two top 20 teams,” he said. “That’s enough for them to know that if they continue to work hard and do the right things, they can be a really, really good football team.”

Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, who saw six of his 11 teams start 4-0 or better and led the Irish to national championships in 1966 and 1973, said he believes the Irish can win a title.

“When you have a great defense, you’re going to be in every game. They’re having trouble getting into a rhythm offensively. But as long as you’ve got a great defense, and that what they have, they’ll be in every game,” he said.

Defense was the common denominator among all five Irish squads that won their first four over the last 30 years.

This year’s version is no exception, ranking 16th in total defense and giving up just nine points a game. The Irish defense, which calls itself the “D Boys,” has allowed only three touchdowns and has yet to concede a rushing TD.

Kelly, who calls plays and is known as an offensive-minded coach, said he knew when he arrived in South Bend that defense was going to be key because the Irish _ with their independent schedule _ face so many styles of offenses.

“We had to have a defense that could control the different teams that we play on a week to week basis,” he said.

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