- 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.

They’ve done that, and are on pace to be the best defense Kelly has had since moving to major college football in 2004.

Te'o said there’s still room for improvement.

“We’ve always believed that we could be great. Slowly, but surely, these little steps we’re taking, it builds our confidence,” he said.

For example, the Irish have forced 13 turnovers, one shy of their total for last season.

“Now we’re a stingy defense and we’re a defense that can take the football away,” Kelly said. “That’s the next level of championship defense.”

No one is talking about the Irish having a championship-level offense, though, which could well be a problem.

Another history lesson: What separated the three 4-0 teams since ‘82 that vied for national championships and the two squads that stumbled down the stretch were their offenses. The contenders all had rushing attacks that ranked in the top 10 nationally and were 36th or better in total offense. Willingham’s 2002 Irish ranked 108th; Faust’s team was not up to par, either.

So far this year, the Irish are 87th in rushing offense at 140 yards a game and 96th in total offense at 351 yards a game. Only three teams in the past decade have finished a season in the top 10 with an offense ranked 95th or worse.

The problem so far has been consistency, Kelly said. Ten players will run a play well, but one player makes a mistake.

“I don’t think it’s a particular scheme as much as it is we just have to continue to practice and hone in on everybody doing their job,” he said.

The focus has been on sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, who didn’t see action as a freshman. He played well against Navy and Michigan State, but last year’s starter, Tommy Rees, came in and led the Irish to wins over Purdue and Michigan.

“Everett is going to continue to work hard and get better,” Kelly said.

Golson will have to be if the Irish are going to have a chance at their first national championship in 24 years.

Since then, Alabama has won three national titles, leaving the two schools tied for the lead with the most national championships in the Associated Press college football poll with eight apiece. And Michigan has passed Notre Dame as the school with the best all-time winning percentage, Texas has moved past the Irish for second place on the NCAA’s list of schools with most victories and Southern California has had three Heisman Trophy winners and Ohio State has had two to tie Notre Dame with the most winners with seven each.

For Irish fans, there’s nothing to do but wait _ and hope.

Parseghian, who had seven teams that ranked in the top six in total defense, believes they have reason to do so.

“In my 11 years there we won a lot of games because we had a heck of a defense. That’s what we’re starting with,” he said. “That carries you a long way.”