SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) _ Year after year, the toughest opponent for Notre Dame's football team may be its own past, a heady mix of national championships, Heisman Trophy winners and legendary coaches.

Certainly the ghosts of Rockne, the Gipper and the gang will be peering over the shoulder of second-year coach Lou Holtz this season as he tries to breathe new life into the Irish program.

But staring him square in the face is a schedule that includes Michigan, Pitt, Alabama, Penn State and Miami.

Holtz will be reminded of the past right off the bat.

The Irish open Sept. 12 at Michigan, the team that beat a coachless Notre Dame 8-0 on Nov. 23, 1887. The 19th century one-game season opened the history book on one of college sports' greatest programs.

Since then, Notre Dame has captured seven national championships, produced famed coaches such as Knute Rockne and Ara Parsehgian, and six Heisman Trophy winners.

While another national championship seems remote for the Fighting Irish, Holtz is hoping that his longshot Heisman candidate, All-American flanker Tim Brown, can help the Irish improve on last season's 5-6 record.

Brown set a school record in 1986 with 1,937 all-purpose yards, scoring five touchdowns on passes, two on runs, and two more on kickoff returns.

''If they gave the award to the best football player, I would have given it to Tim Brown last season,'' says Holtz.

Still, Brown's wide receiver duties make him an unlikely pick for an award that usually goes to quarterbacks and running backs, Holtz says. ''I think it's almost unheard of for a wide receiver to be a Heisman candidate in this day and age,'' he said. ''The fact that he is, is a real tribute to him and his talent.''

Leading the offense will be senior quarterback Terry Andrysiak.

Andrysiak completed 17 of 30 pass attempts for 233 yards and one touchdown last season playing backup for Steve Beuerlein. ''He's our number one quarterback. He has earned that on the field this past spring,'' Holtz said.

Notre Dame's 5-6 record last season conceals both the dismal 1-4 start and a strong 4-2 finish that included a narrow home loss to powerhouse Penn State and a 2-point loss to Louisiana S in the season, Holtz pledged that Notre Dame would soon renew its flagging self-confidence and intimidate opponents into making the same mistakes that plagued the Irish.

''I feel stronger that way today than when I made that comment then,'' he says now. ''I believe if we can become better, and more consistent and more confident, that we will find other people making mistakes against Notre Dame.''

But Holtz admits to ''question marks,'' chief among them the defense tackles, secondary and the kicking game.

Six of Notre Dame's seven top tacklers graduated, including linebacker Mike Kovaleski, who led the team with 88 tackles, and Wally Kleine, who added 74 and with five sacks.

''We had problems in the secondary last year, problems rushing the passer, and yet we lost two fine linebackers in Kovaleski and (Ron) Weissenhofer, (and) Robert Banks and Kleine, two fine defensive tackles, and virtually our entire secondary,'' said Holtz.

Defensive coach Foge Fazio says he's still demanding a better pass rush and better secondary coverage. The Irish had little success last season running down the opposing quarterback. ''We couldn't catch him, and that means we weren't in the right slots.''

Despite a strong recruiting year, Holtz says he's wary of relying again on freshmen to fill the weak spots. Ten freshman accumulated enough playing time last season to win letters.

''We're still going to have to play some freshmen, and that's never a real healthy sign overall,'' he said. ''That's not a voice of doom, either, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying we've got lots of question marks. We've got to find some answers.''

END ADV Weekend Editions Aug. 29-30.