The polls say it, but the Irish don't believe it. They are No. 1 in the eyes this week of sportswiters and coaches, but not their own.

So, when they take the field against ninth-ranked Tennessee in noisy, sold-out, 91,110-seat Neyland Stadium Saturday, Irish players say they have something to prove to themselves."We don't think we're the No. 1 team in the nation. We're still vying for that," said cornerback and co-captain Todd Lyght. "We're fighting just like anyone else is.

"When people get on top, they rest on their laurels. But we're going to be the hunters, not the hunted."

With a 7-1 record, the Irish have a national championship in their sights - if only.

If they get by Tennessee, then Penn State and Southern California in what is the toughest final three game regular-season schedule of anyone else, then - and then only - will they play for the national crown on Jan. 1.

Playing Tennessee (5-1-2) in Knoxville is a big obstacle to the final goal.

It has tied two teams when each was in the Top 10, Colorado and Auburn, and annihilated 10-ranked Florida 45-3.

Though the Irish are ranked No. 1, the Vols are 31/2-point favorites with the oddsmakers.

They feature a balanced offense in the scheme of coach Johnny Majors, a favorite son, who was No. 2 behind Notre Dame's Paul Hornung for the 1956 Heisman Trophy, when Majors was a wing back for the Volunteers.

They lost premier running back Chuck Webb to a knee injury, but 5-foot-7-inch Tony Thompson has stepped in at tailback to average 6.2 yards per carry.

Quarterback Andy Kelly has completed 56 percent of his passes, though he has been erratic.

In consecutive games against Auburn, Florida and Alabama - which handed the Vols their only defeat, 9-6 - he completed 44 percent of his passes with six interceptions.

Kelly has superb receivers in Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper, speedburners who can clear 7 feet in the high jump.

Tennessee averages 412 yards per game and an average of 227 yards rushing per game.

It is the defense, however, that is the pearl of this Tennessee team.

After Tennessee finished 11-1 last season, Majors was not pleased with the defense and brought in a new defensive coordinator, Larry Lacewell, former defensive coordinator at Oklahoma and head coach at Arkansas State.

Lacewell has fashioned a unit that is quick, fast and tough. It has forced more than twice as many turnovers as the Irish and nearly twice as many sacks .