The stadium doesn't seem so foreboding, the questions so penetrating, the sun and television lights so oddly warm and bright.

Colorado has been here before, one year ago, in the Orange Bowl and facing this same challenge: defending its top-ranked status against the formidable Fighting Irish.And the Buffaloes - although hesitant to admit it - are more comfortable with the task before them. A date Tuesday with Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl (7 p.m. kickoff) doesn't jolt the nerves as much as it might have in the past.

They're not about to let the fifth-ranked Irish (9-2) get the best of them again.

"I think we're all pretty calm," Colorado linebacker Kanavis McGhee said Saturday during media day at the Orange Bowl. "But deep down inside, everyone is thinking about last year and what happened."

That, simply enough, was a rousing chorus of missed opportunities - three first-half scoring chances the Buffaloes would sorely miss in a second half that got away from them.

A fumble by tailback Eric Bieniemy on Notre Dame's 19-yard line and two missed field goals cost the Buffaloes their first national title.

"Yeah, I'm thinking a lot about that, standing here on this field," said junior quarterback Darian Hagan, whose statistics this season - 73-of-163, 1,538 yards, 11 touchdowns - have been instrumental toward a 10-1-1 record.

"I'm thinking a lot about what might have been," Hagan said, "but we're definitely not dwelling on it. We've been through some big tests this season and passed them all, so I think that's what gives us the feeling that Notre Dame isn't going to do that to us again."

The Irish certainly aren't counting on it.

"They've got such an explosive offense and are capable of so many things (that) you have to be ready for anything," said Notre Dame linebacker Michael Stonebreaker. Although the fifth-down controversy in Colorado's 33-31 victory at Missouri on Oct. 6 has tainted the Buffaloes' claim on a possible national title, they point with pride to their accomplishments - road victories at Texas and Nebraska and a 20-14 victory in Boulder over Washington.

"This year, we won on the road in Austin (Texas), and they were 10-1," Colorado coach Bill McCartney said. "We won on the road at Nebraska, and they were 9-2. We had road victories this year that exceeded what we did last year. So I think that gives us more confidence.

"Plus, they've been here before. They've all been through this whole scenario before, and that's why they would be more self-assured."

What a difference a game makes.

"Definitely," wide receiver Mike Pritchard said. "We're very confident. I think we're more confident this year than we were last year. We feel like we can play with anybody, and Notre Dame is a top opponent.

"We've been tested by some great teams and pulled some games out, and we know we can play four quarters. With the athletes we have on this team and the heart we have on this team, we feel like we can play with anybody."