College football has rivalries. And then it has Michigan against Ohio State.

Over the last dozen years, the ritual combat between the Wolverines and Buckeyes has moved to a higher plateau.

When these two 120-man squads stampede into 104,000-seat Michigan Stadium here Saturday (12:50 p.m., WJLA-TV7), the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl will be in the balance for the 12th consecutive season.

As the deposed Ohio State coach, Woody Hayes, said today, "This is the greatest game in football today. In tradition and intensity and importance -- year after year -- it has moved past every other game in America, including the Super Bowl."

Perhaps, in a sense, Hayes is correct. This annual festival -- The Big One, The One-Game Season -- is the apotheosis of something. But it is hard to say exactly what.

Tonight, thousands of Wolverine fans marched through the streets of placid, academic Ann Arbor chanting. "O how I hate Ohio State." At their fore were a hundred torchbearers and a vast marching band. Nations have gone to war with less pomp and ceremony.

Just the night before, in Columbus, Ohio, thousands of Buckeye fans held their pep rally in Ohio Stadium as they sang, Ooooh, we don't give a damn for the whole state of Michigan."

Standing patiently in a light drizzle, the throng cheered the huge scarlet and gray State band as it boogied to "Hang on Sloopy."

The Ohio State team, in civvies, high-stepping along with the music, serenated the fans with their own thunderous version of the Buckeye fight song.

"Michigan -- where a rose never grows," and Michigan -- the part of Ohio that nobody wanted," said the big buttons on a hundred chests.

This is a football's grand eloquent Fun City -- Love It or Leave It.

If this contest were taken in the spirit of comradeship and genuine amateur sport in which it was created in 1897, it would be a bore. Fortunately, from the very first encounter, this game has not been tarnished by high-mindedness or blather about ideals.

In that first meeting, Michigan set the tone by rubbing in its 34-0 win, by disdainfully punting on first down every time it touched the ball in the second half.

The perfect beginning: Nothing beats hate.

Just five years later, Fielding Yost's "point-a-minute" men humiliated the previously unscored-upon Buckeyes, 86-0, in a massacre that had to be called 10 minutes early on account of shame.

Since then, nothing has disturbed the profitable atmosphere of bad sportsmanship, million-dollar spending and genuine dislike for one another.

What more could anyone ask than the spectacle of these two proud factories grinding each other into the artificial turf.

In 1946, Michigan, leading 55-0, with 96 seconds to play, kicked a field goal on the way to a 58-6 squeaker. Thus was born the revenge stanza of the OSU fight song that goes."On Ohio, fifty-eight to six."

That tradition of ignoring football's unwritten Geneva Conventions never has been broken.

Neither side has ever flinched at demonstrating the athletic ethics of Attila the Hun.

Anyone who saw Hayes kick a yard marker and throw a chair in the 1959 game wasn't surprised to see him run up the score by going for a two-point conversion with a 50-20 lead in 1961.

The height of here's-spit-in-your-eye came in 1968 when Michigan's distinguished coach, Bump Elliot, was retiring. In the Bumper's last game, Hayes sent his first team back into the fray to run up the count with OSU ahead, 50-14.

Michigan never forgot - as, in fact, neither elephant-memoried university ever forgets a slight. The next year, in the greatest upset in the 75 Michigan-OSU, battles, the Wolverines beat Hayes' No. 1-ranked team to ruin what might have been OSU's greatest season.

"Here in this vast, dear tilting ground (the football stadium), we feel the blood lust of accomplishment," says a chilling poem emblazoned on a wall of the Ohio State Alumni Association building.

Perhaps, that bloodlust of accomplishment is the emotional thread that ties the football fates of Michigan and Ohio State so closely to the community lives of Ann Arbor and Columbus.

"The buildup to this game is getting like the Super Bowl," Michigan coach Bo Schembechler said today. "People talk about how a player sprained an ankle two weeks ago, so he must be a step slower. Or one team has gained six more yards than the other . . . . you can't believe some of the stuff you see and hear."

Columbus probably is the more football-absorbed of the two cities. Unlike Ann Arbor, which primarily is a campus suburb of Detroit (just 25 miles away), Columbus is a city of more than a million which has an identity unrelated to that of any other metropolitan area.

Columbus, which has been called "a suburb in search of a town," is a comfortable, sprawling city of civil manners, little pretense and no ambition to attain fast pace or power.

If Columbus seems homogenized, relaxed with tradition and dedicated to cautious stability, it is by no means lobotomized. A placid form of mental health, neither hick nor hip, seems to hang over the city. Appropriately, Columbus' most famous son is that chamber of commerce ideal, Jack Nicklaus.

In a town so civic-minded that no one complains when the police go on the nation's most intense program of ticketing jaywalkers, it is no surprise that Ohio State's success is seen as synonymous with that of the town.

"You have to realize that Columbus is a big and fast-growing city which only has one professional sports franchise on which to focus all its rooting -- Ohio State," said Harry Ruman, an airlines flight engineer from Columbus.

OSU sports are such an ingrained part of community life that conversational references, no matter how obscure, to State or Michigan football are almost always picked up immediately.

"Baron Von Schembechler, that looks like a gorilla you are talking to," begins a commercial on Columbus radio that is selling auto mufflers.

"That is a gorilla?" answers the Von Schembechler voice. "He's the only one on my team who graduated.Here, No. 12, have a banana."

Perhaps no American campus is more devoted to all forms of athletics than Ohio State, where the 87,000-seat stadium has been sold out for 70 straight games. That jock mania spreads throughout Columbus.

"On this campus, we have 400 men's intramural basketball teams and 200 women's teams," said thee assistant sports information director, Denny Koehl. w

"We have 55,000 students at OSU and it seems like every one is either an athlete of a fan. When our basketball season tickets went on sale two weeks ago, people camped out in line for two nights. When a vending machine truck accidentally pulled up on the second morning, they were so hungry that it was ransacked for every crumb.

"When the ticket windows opened, people were trampled. Sometimes it's hard for us to understand just how much enthusiasm is out there."

In the midst of such sports hysteria, it is easy to see why Columbus travel agencies are swamped by requests for $700 package deals to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, which unbeaten OSU thinks it will be in. Three charter flights already are booked full.

The central figure in the OSUfootball tradition -- and perhaps in the whole rilvalry -- is the man who still keeps an office in the Military Science Building: Woody Hayes.

He beat the blue-and-maize more times (16) than all the other State coaches combines (12).

"Because I despised losing so much," Haye said, "I took mediocre ability and made myself a pretty good coach."

Because Hayes' emotion was genuine, even if it was eccentric, it was infectious. True belief is so rare that it always breeds believers.

During Michigan Week, Hayes refused to mention the word Michigan," instead referring to the hated foe as "that team up north." People thought he was serious. Maybe he was.

On one recruiting trip in Michigan, the fuel gauge on Hayes' car dipped down to empty. As he and an assistant headed back toward the Ohio line, the assistant asked if they shouldn't stop for gas.

"We'll either make it back to Ohio, or we'll walk," said Hayes. "I refuse to pay the sales tax in Michigan."

Anyway, that's the story. Only a grouch would doubt it.

Fed by such fanaticism, Buckeye fans seldom have been gentle. Every plate glass window on High Street as it passes the OSU campus was either boarded up or covered with wire mesh screens as of last night. A 200-man police "contingency squad" was at the ready to response to whatever form the Ohio State students' joy or despair might take Saturday night.

And that's when the game is in Ann Arbor.

For decades, Michigan, with its reputation as the Harvard of the West, felt itself slightly too Ivy to keep pace in zaniness with the school it adamantly and tauntingly calls "Ohio" but never "Ohio State."

"We never thought that Michigan fans were quite that way," said Michigan publicist Will Perry.

But all that changed 11 years ago. In 1969, the year Schembechler announced himself as a rookie coach with his stunning upset to revenge Bump Elliot's memory, Michigan got itself a new athletic director, Don Canham.

No one, not even Ohio State, ever dreamed that a college football team could be promoted, merchandised and sold in the volume that Canham envisioned. cCanham, for starters, mailed out 1 million color fliers to Michigan alumni, family and friends to hawk season tickets.

In those days, when OSU visited, Buckeye backers could buy all the tickets they wanted. Michigan had plenty to spare.

This Saturday, Michigan will pack in its 29th consecutive football crowd of more than 100,000.

"They send us 3,000 visitors' tickets, that's all," said one disgruntled OSU official. "And I think the seats get worse every year.

"They're always in the first three rows so that if the drunk Michigan fans throw a whiskey bottle at the field and it falls short, it's sure to hit one of us."

"As many tickets as they allot us," replied Koehl, "that's how many we allot them. You can be reasonably sure that we wouldn't give them any more than they give us.'

If Columbus is sold on the idea of Ohio State football, then Ann Arbor is sold on the paraphernalia of Wolverine success.

If Michigan had its way, every student, every alumni and every building in Ann Arbor would be blue and maize from tip to toe. From trash and garbage cans to toilet seats, Michigan has its own company to make the official Wolverine line.

The fixation with maize and blue (or "blue and yeller" if you're from Ohio) has reached the point where Michigan students sneak into Columbus on the Sunday before The Game and spray paint every stationary object with blue 'M's."

These aerosol terrorists have an unblemished record of success -- none ever has been caught.

Actually, Michigan and Ohio were calling each other names long before football was invented. Not long after the Civil War, dispute was so hot over which state owned the strip of land in northern Ohio around Toledo that both states had troops ready to fight. To this day, Toledo is staunch Wolverine country.

For the past 53 years the rivalry has been so close (25-25-3) that the slightest psychological advantage has been cherished.

There was fear after Hayes was fired that this masterpiece of mayhem, which he and Schembechler had raised from a rivalry to The Rivalry, might lose its zest if OSU's new coach, Earle Bruce, could not revive the Buckeyes.

After all, OSU did not score a touchdown in Hayes' last three Michigan battles as the Bucks lost all three. Would the Big Two continue to boss the other Little Eight? Since 1968, only in 1971 had the OSU-Michigan game failed to have the Rose Bowl bid riding on it. And even then, Michigan had the Pasadena visit wrapped up.

Fears have now been laid aside. True, Ann Arbor fans will have to lay down their traditional obscene anti-Hayes signs. The mild-mannered Bruce has left the incendiary comments to others and is not easy to hate.

Bruce also has not been colorful, but he has, at least, cooperated by being perfect: 10-0 with a No. 2 ranking in the AP poll and No. 3 in UPI.

Suddenly, this feud has just what it needs, fresh blood, Schembechler, through necessity, has opened up his offense dramatically since his only healthy quarterback, John Wangler, is a pure passer who can't run the option worth a pitch.

Bruce, au contraire, always was a bit of an offensive wild man at Iowa State and isn't about to stop now that he finally has a team that, in his words, "is loaded with burners."

Thus, a new battle in an old, old war begins.

'before the Ohio team boarded its flight for Ann Arbor tonight, every Buckeye participated in "Senior Tackle" -- a ritual where every man who is about to play in his final OSU game hits the tackling dummy one final time. Send-off crowds cheered, Bands played.

As the Bucks deplaned, they were greeted by placards that read: "Final UPI Poll -- 1. Michigan, 2. Sex, 3. Ohio State."

A long line of men from the rivalry would have been proud -- Tom Harmon, who once outscored OSU, 40-0, by himself; Gerald Ford, an All-America for the first Michigan team to be routed (0-34).

Evan Hayes, his face a fist, would have felt at home.

As a final fillip, Game 75 of this affair will have a new dimension in scoreboard watching, since the Big Ten race still could end in a three-way tie between OSU, Michigan and Purdue.

If OSUwins, it goes to the Rose Bowl automatically. But if Michigan, the 4 1/2-point underdog, should triumph, it will have to root for Indiana to beat Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket game.Only such a Michigan -- Indiana parlay can get the Wolverines to Pasadena. Otherwise, it's Ohio State.

Purdue, thanks to a complex tie-breaking procedure that was instituted after a wild OSU-versus-Michigan voting debate in 1973, cannot go to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens.

Whether it is the '50 Blizzard Bowl with Michigan failing to make a single first down and punting 24 times -- yet winning, 9-3 -- or the '77 show with Hayes punching a cameraman, this testimony to hatred seldom has failed to meet its own standards.

From the first eye-gouge to the last kick-him-when-he's-down, Michigan and Ohio State are ready once more. Every tooth is bared.

Gentlemen, start your molars.