Thursday's edition of the Columbus Dispatch carried a 22-page section on Saturday's college-football game between dearly beloved Ohio State and fearsome invader Oklahoma. Radio Station WBNS gave contest winners autographed copies of Woody Hayes' book, "You Win With People." And when WLWC-TV asked people on the street who would win, a woman said, "Ohio State, because Woody Hayes is the coach. Period."

They take Ohio State football seriously here. More than 87,900 paying customers will fill Ohio Stadium for this one, the 53d straight sellout. Save for cursed Michigan, whose Wolverines inspire profane signs for sale in respectable souvenir shops, Ohio State may count Oklahoma as its Big Game this season. And Oklahoma may say the same of the Buckeyes, holding back the right to hate Texas more when the time comes.

That's because the national championship may ride on Saturday's regionally televised game (not shown in the Washington area). Certainly, a defeat will make a national championship unlikely. The teams will be standing up for their conference honor, too, because some people see here a test of power, the Big 10 against the Big Eight. "It's going to be," said Thomas Lott, the Oklahoma quarterback, "a helluva football game."

Oklahoma's speed is awesome. Fullback Kenny King, a starter for three years now, is the backfield's slowpoke. It takes him 9.6 seconds to run 100 yards. Elvis Peacock, the left halfback, goes 9.3, and Billy Sims, the right half, is the best of them all. The quarterback, Lott, is a master of the devilishly complicated ballhandling needed to run the wishbone offense - and he, too, can fly behind an offensive line that is big and experienced.

In this season's 25-23 and 62-24 victories over Vanderbilt and Utah, Oklahoma's defense has been suspect. But an epidemic of fumbles - Oklahoma has fumbled 17 times, losing the ball 12 times - has given the enemy good field position. A lot of those fumbles can be explained away, however, because Lott was injured and held out to mend for Ohio State. His replacements botched the intricate handoffs of the wishbone, causing the fumbles.

Ohio State has beaten Miami (Fla.), 10-0, and Minnesota, 38-7. In running backs Jeff Logan, Rick Johnson and Ron Springs, the Buckeyes have great speed. And quarterback Rod Gerald, sometimes called "The Magician" because he vanishes in front of a tackler's eyes, threw two touchdown passes last week.

If there's difference in these teams, the edge belongs to Ohio State for its defense. Oklahoma's two victims gained 601 yards, while Ohio State's gained 335. One man's guess is that Ohio State will win, 31-24. Hayes, when asked if it would be a high-scoring game, said, "Both teams have relatively high-scoring offenses. So I'd say yes. On the other hand, a game like this often turns out to be low-scoring. So I'd say no."

With that cleared up, Hayes sat on a bench outside his team's locker room and charmed a handful of Oklahoma newspapermen who were new to the Woody Hayes phenomenon. One had asked a Columbus writer how Hayes was acting this week, and the man answered, "Well, he hasn't volunteered any secret information - but he hasn't hit anybody, either."

The thought of Woody Hayes produces images of a fat old man throwing a baby fit. He tore up the down markets in a rage during the Michigan game in 1971. At the '73 Rose Bowl, he violently shoved a camera into a photographer's face, leaving the man with double vision for weeks. Now 64, recovered from a heart attack three years ago, Hayes is said to be mellowing. He was, today, a kindly gentleman advertising his love for football, for Ohio State and, egad, for the genius of Bud Wilkinson, the coach who made Oklahoma great.

"In the last 26 years," he said, "we have cleared $45 million on football. Cleared $45 million. And I've found that however much money we get, it's never enough. Whatever we make, we use."

Hayes has been the football coach those 26 years, and he's proud that his work has made Ohio State a better place. "That $45 million built St. John Arena (the basketball/athletic offices complex). And it brought a lot of fine sports to Ohio State, as many as anybody in the country has. You see, my greatest interest is not professional sports. But, look here. Who is the top man in professional basketball?"

Before anyone could say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the kindly old man took off his Ohio State cap and ran a hand over his silvering hair. Softly and gently, he said, "One man stands out way above any other, and he's one of ours: John Havlicek. You go into golf. You see Jack Nicklaus' course and you know he's a genius. To football. Who has represented his university better than anyone in history? Archie Griffin.

"So we'll take those three Ohio State men and dare anybody to match them."

Hayes said he once spent a week at Oklahoma, learning Wilkinson's offensive system. He envied the cool Oklahoman. "He'd do things so casually and in perfect order. I could no more coach that way than fly out the window."

It was about 15 years ago, Hayes said, when his son Steve, then in high school, showed him a report card with three A's and two B's. "That's good, son. But, you know, you can always do better. Coach Wilkinson's son, Jay, has never had anything but A's."

And Steve Hayes said, "Yeah - and Jay's dad won 47 straight games, too."

Hayes told that story today, laughing, and said, "You know what Steve is now, don't you? A lawyer."