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Open season on hype

ATLANTA -- The hype and hysteria built steadily through the spring and summer. National championship. Heisman Trophy. BCS game, at the very least.

Welcome to the world of Notre Dame football in Year 2 of the Charlie Weis Era.

Oh, the second-year coach did his best to preach the ``one game at a time" theory as last night's season opener against Georgia Tech approached. But it was Weis who established the overall attitude when he hung a banner above the weight room in the Notre Dame locker room that read, ``9-3 is not enough."

That, of course, was last year's record, which was good enough for a BCS bowl bid -- but, for the eighth straight time, not a bowl win.

It is a standard many coaches would take in a heartbeat, but it is not good enough for the Irish this fall. Not with 16 starters returning, not with senior quarterback Brady Quinn returning for his final year in South Bend as the preseason Heisman favorite, not with preseason rankings of No. 2 and No. 3 in the polls.

All of that talk, however, was cast aside last night at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium as the Irish began what Quinn flat-out said was a quest for the national championship with a 14-10 victory.

The Irish arrived in Atlanta Friday with Weis hoping their mind-set would keep them focused.

``We really treat these trips as a business trip," said Weis, who did his best to limit the distractions with meetings and meals all geared around the team concept.

``There's a lot of camaraderie. I like the players around the players. I don't think they're really worrying too much about outside influences."'

They don't need to, because everyone else seems to do it for them. An elite Notre Dame team -- and, until proven otherwise on the field, this looks like one -- is different from an elite Southern Cal or Ohio State team. The bandwagon is crowded at the start and gets more crowded with each victory.

Notre Dame's arrival here was the highlight of a frenzied Labor Day weekend that included ESPN's ``Game Day" on site, the largest request for media credentials in Georgia Tech history, and a pregame buildup impressive even here in the heart of college football country.

The word ``arrogance" has returned to Notre Dame, which wasn't the case in the days of Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, who had the same expectations that Weis now has.

Davie took the Irish to three bowl games in five seasons -- including Notre Dame's first-ever BCS bid, to the 2001 Fiesta Bowl. Willingham brought the Irish to two bowl games in his three years and started out his career in South Bend much as Weis did, with eight straight wins and 10 overall.

But that wasn't good enough to get Willingham the standard five years that most Notre Dame coaches receive. The prevailing theory of success may have been best described by Davie, who supposedly once stood at the grave of Knute Rockne on the Notre Dame campus and lamented that he had set the bar too high with his 105-12-5 record over a 13-year period that included six national championships.

Weis, a Notre Dame graduate, has embraced all of the mystique, tradition, and expectations. He has talked about the aura of the place and said that any recruit who doesn't feel it when walking around campus probably is not a good fit for Notre Dame.

Yet, from the first day, Weis talked about ``raising expectations," which obviously meant they were not high enough, in his mind.

That is not the case any longer, which is why last night's game against Tech, which has a national championship (1990) in its record books, was so intriguing.

The Yellow Jackets almost seemed to relish the role of underdog that playing Notre Dame had cast them in. Coach Chan Gailey has plenty of talent on his roster -- including senior quarterback Reggie Ball, All-America wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and a veteran defense -- and that talent almost spoiled the Irish's party.

Tech had recent history on its side, with upsets of Auburn and Miami the past few years. Tech's last meeting with the Irish was a 35-28 Gator Bowl victory (one of ND's eight consecutive bowl losses) on Jan. 1, 1999.

But the Yellow Jackets were not immune to the hype that accompanied Notre Dame's arrival. Ticket requests and media requests were off the charts for a team that went 7-5 last year and has been a middle-of-the-road ACC performer.

Gailey told his team to not avoid the hype, but to handle it.

For Notre Dame, it is a weekly occurrence. Next week's home opener against Penn State will bring newly minted Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno to South Bend. More hoopla, more hysteria.

Welcome to Notre Dame football 2006 -- much like it has always been, which is just fine with the Irish as long as they are winning.

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