SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – Charlie Weis has Notre Dame fans dreaming big again.

Weis already has won more games than any other Fighting Irish coach in his first two seasons, and next up is Southern California on the road Saturday in a showdown between the No. 3 Trojans (9-1) and No. 6 Irish (10-1).

Weis has returned Notre Dame to the elite, with one top-10 finish already on his resume and another one possible.

After eight roller-coaster seasons under Tyrone Willingham and Bob Davie, Notre Dame is on a solid, steady course.

Weis is 19-4 at Notre Dame with two games left this season – USC and a bowl game. His winning percentage of 82.6 is fractionally better than Ara Parseghian’s after two seasons (82.5) and Frank Leahy’s (80) and is not far behind Knute Rockne’s (86.6).

That’s not bad company, but Weis frequently says: “I really haven’t done anything yet.”

By Notre Dame standards, he’s right. Aside from a national championship, which Parseghian, Leahy and Lou Holtz all won in their third seasons, the one thing Weis has yet to accomplish is leading the Irish to a signature win.

Twenty-three games into his tenure, Weis’ most impressive coaching feat may have been the near-upset of top-ranked USC in October 2005.

The Irish came within the wave of an arm by cornerback Ambrose Wooden of winning when Matt Leinart completed a 61-yard pass on fourth-and-9 to set up his winning TD with 3 seconds left to win 34-31.

While many talk of how riveting that thriller was, Weis still describes it as “a miserable game and will always be a miserable game.”

Weis has had some good victories. Notre Dame beat No. 3 Michigan 17-10 in the second game last season, but that win was tainted because Wolverines ended the season unranked, going 7-5 – its worst record in two decades.

Weis, though, dismisses talk about one win being more important than another.

“If you glamorize one game, then you’re not giving just due to all the other games,” he said. “There are very few games that we’ve won that I didn’t say, ‘That was a great victory.”‘

There are plenty who will, though. Critics last season complained that besides Michigan, Notre Dame played only two winnning teams last year during the regular season -USC (12-1) and Navy (8-4).

The knocks came even though talk before the season centered on how tough the schedule would be with four opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25, including two in the top four.

The Irish schedule has been criticized again this season even though the NCAA rates it the 24th toughest, ahead of Auburn (29th), Ohio State (38th) and Arkansas (58th).

However, Notre Dame’s only win over a ranked team was 14-10 over No. 16 Georgia Tech in the opening game of the season – before the Yellow Jackets were ranked.

The Irish also have been criticized by some for not winning with enough style.

“Probably one of my few gripes that I have is when people scrutinize schedules, they’ll talk about our ugly wins,” Weis said. “If you take any one of the teams, any one of them and look at certain games, you can find games that weren’t very good wins.”

In any event, the Irish still aren’t where Weis wants them to be. He sees what Pete Carroll has done, leading the Trojans to two national championships and 54 victories in their last 57 games.

“I mean, three losses by a combined eight points over that span,” he said. “If you give me that record right now, I’ll take the next four years off. Go ahead, give me that record right now. I’ll take a little siesta.”

But Weis knows there is no time for rest now. After three straight seasons of losing by 31, the Irish cut the margin to three points last season. They are hoping for even better.

“I’d just like to think that as good as their program has been for quite some time, we’re on our way to being on equal footing,” Weis said. “I’d like to think we’re on our way.”

AP-ES-11-21-06 1744EST

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