Bill McCartney, coach of top-ranked Colorado, talks of Notre Dame in reverent tones and makes no secret of his desire to emulate the Fighting Irish football program.

But first, he aims to beat them in tonight's Orange Bowl.For the second straight year, Colorado is ranked No. 1 and one step away from a national championship. Last year, Notre Dame dashed Colorado's title hopes

with a 21-6 victory. Tonight, the Irish, ranked No. 5, will try to do it again.

McCartney believes last year's Orange Bowl experience - the hype, the distractions, the scrutiny of the media - will prove invaluable to his team.

"Once you've experienced something and you have time to digest it and sort it out, you're better suited to take it on the second time," McCartney said Monday. "I don't recommend that for marriage. But for football it works well."

McCartney sounds as if he'd be an effective recruiter for Notre Dame if given the opportunity.

"Notre Dame recruits the greatest players, they graduate them, they play the toughest schedule year-in and year-out," he said. "They have tremendous facilities, a tremendous following and the greatest exposure on television. It's the maximum challenge. Everybody wants to play a program of that caliber. It's the kind of program we want to have.

"After last year's loss, we knew we needed to become mentally tougher," McCartney said. "The way to gauge that was how we played in our six road games, particularly against Nebraska in Lincoln. In that game we had some early fumbles, much like the mistakes we made here last year, which we were able to overcome this time. We need to display that once more in the biggest game of all."

Both teams have had strange seasons. Colorado (10-1-1) has won its last nine games, including a controversial fifth-down victory over Missouri. After a tie with Tennessee and a loss to Illinois had dropped Colorado to 1-1-1 and to 20th in the rankings, the Buffs had just about abandoned any hope for a repeat run at the national championship. But one-by-one, teams above them faltered.

Notre Dame (9-2) sustained both of its losses - to Stanford in October and to Penn State in its next-to-last game - when it was ranked No. 1 and at home. Not coincidentally, wide receiver-kick returner Raghib "Rocket" Ismail saw limited action in both games.