NEW YORK -- This could be a season of milestones for the Columbia football team -- ones it could do without.

Columbia's 31-game losing streak is already the second longest in major college history, and on Saturday the Lions play Harvard, a team that beat them, 34-0, in last season's opener.

Only losses to Harvard, Lafayette, Pennsylvania and Princeton stand between Columbia and the record. No. 35, which would surpass Northwestern's mark set in 1979-82, would come on Oct. 10 at Princeton.

But Coach Larry McElreavy thinks his team has improved "light years" since last season and said confidently this summer, "We will not break the record. Don't ask me which game we'll do it, but I know we'll win before that."

Can it get any worse than his first season? The Lions were 0-10. They were outscored, 379-91. They were outrushed by nearly two miles.

McElreavy doesn't think so. He said the team should be improved defensively thanks to players from last year's freshman team that went 3-3.

Then there's the addition of John Robinson, a linebacker/end who transferred from Southern Methodist after SMU was suspended by the NCAA.

At least the Lions have a placekicker this season -- Matt Pollard, a sophomore from Dallas. Last season, the team borrowed one from the soccer squad.

But will that be enough to depose Columbia as major college football's No. 1 patsie?

In the cautious tradition of college coaching, Harvard's Joe Restic is taking nothing for granted about Saturday's game.

"I think you have to get up for every game. We have to make sure we don't make the big mistakes in crucial situations," Restic said.

"They have some starters back, people with playing time. They came along, they got better, they improved in the latter part of the season," Restic said of Columbia, which has not beaten Harvard since 1978 and has had only one winning season since 1963.

Matt Less, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, will be the first sophomore starter at quarterback for the Lions since John Witkowski began a three-year, record-breaking reign in 1981.

Junior Chris Della Pietra, a former quarterback, will be the tailback and 205-pound sophomore Chris Konovalchik will be the starting fullback.

Harvard has a veteran backfield behind quarterback Tom Yohe and a running game bolstered by the return of running back Rufus Jones, who missed last season with a knee injury.

"They probably have us by 10 pounds a man on offense and 20-25 pounds on defense," said McElreavy of the teams' front lines.

McElreavy said his team is more intense than last year.

"All the intense moments we had you could have counted on one hand last year," he said.

McElreavy hopes that Less will provide some spark for an offense that did not score a touchdown in a preseason 20-6 loss to Division III Hofstra.