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IRISH COACH COULD MAKE UGLY HISTORY

Here we are, a week into the college football season, and already the skin tingles with anticipation of what could be in store. Notre Dame is 0-1, likely on its way to 0-2, and quite possibly en route to its second straight losing season under Tyrone Willingham.

Do you know the last time the illustrious Fighting Irish suffered back-to-back losing seasons under the same coach?

Never.

It hasn't happened once since James L. Morison assumed control in 1894, whomping Hillsdale, Wabash and Rush Medical in a five-game schedule played -- big surprise here -- all at home.

So pull up a chair. This could be as titillating as a Red Sox-Cubs World Series, only without the inevitable pangs of sympathy.

Maybe being on the cusp of this kind of history fails to excite you. Much of the country is head-over-heels for Notre Dame football. It says so right there on the university's athletic Web site, which offers up a 2003 ESPN poll as proof positive that the Irish have a magnetic appeal that transcends state lines.

Notre Dame was the only school to finish top 10 in all four regional breakdowns. It has a particularly strong following in the Northeast, dwarfing the likes of Syracuse and Boston College. Unattached fans seem to gravitate the way of the Irish, which figures considering Oprah gets less TV time.

That's why rooting for Notre Dame is like pulling for the IRS. Everything's stacked in its favor. The Irish always have benefited from a home-heavy schedule, one the school intends to expand from six to seven games in 2009.

"I'm trying to convince people to get nine," Willingham said at last week's news conference, perhaps in the spirit of self-preservation.

It won't be long before a Notre Dame road trip's a trek to the corner market. And yet the Fighting Irish wonder why they can't recruit, why they've had 57 first-round NFL draft picks but none since '94? You have to admit, "Come to Notre Dame, see South Bend," stumbles as a deal-closer.

But Notre Dame has its parachute. The Irish receive special consideration in the BCS system, simply because they're Notre Dame and, once upon a time, the most dominant football program in the land. OK, granted, it's not like the Irish receive a free pass. The terms of the agreement read something like: "If we beat Army or Navy, we're in."

This could be a rough season for the Irish, Willingham's last considering the program appears headed for unprecedented territory. Notre Dame adjusted its schedule before the season, hoping to ease its way into the year. Brigham Young was moved from October into the lead-off spot so the Irish wouldn't have to open against formidable Michigan, which it gets this week instead.

But BYU, 4-8 last year when it lost to the Irish by 19, was too much to handle in Provo, Utah, for a Notre Dame team that looked like something out of the dreaded Kevin Gilbride mold. The Irish ran just 21 times for 11 yards. They passed 47 times. They were in danger of being routed in the first half until a late rally narrowed the gap in a 20-17 defeat. It's all become typical of the Irish, who've had one winning road record since Lou Holtz departed after the 1996 season.

The remaining road schedule is scant but foreboding: Michigan State, Tennessee and Southern Cal. The home games after Michigan are against Washington, Purdue, Stanford, Boston College and Pitt. Navy will be played at a neutral site.

This could be the season it finally happens. That the Irish, who haven't had consecutive losing seasons since 1985-86, suffers that fate for the first time under the same coach.

But look at the bright side. At least his resume was clean.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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