On a trip home to Columbus, Ohio, this summer, Michigan safety Marcus Ray ran into some friends who play for the Ohio State football team.

"They were talking about being No. 1," Ray said. "I just looked at my ring."Thus was the latest shot fired in the Buckeye-and-Wolverine War as the Big Ten's 1998 kickoff festivities concluded at the Chicago Hilton and Towers.

The voters in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll confirmed the Buckeyes' boasting this week, putting Ohio State atop their preseason poll. But Michigan wears the jewelry from its 1997 championship, at least as defined by the AP media voters.

"I say, `Congratulations, Ohio State,"' Ray said. "I'm glad they're No. 1. Let it stay that way until Nov. 21. We saw what happened last year with Penn State."

What happened? The Nittany Lions opened the season atop the AP poll, but Michigan took over the spot after blowing out Penn State in November. The preseason AP vote will be released Aug. 15.

A No. 1 ranking in August is rarely a blessing. Since 1978 only two teams - '85 Oklahoma and '93 Florida State - have started and finished the season atop the AP poll. And both fell from the top slot during the season before rebounding.

That's why coach John Cooper was cautious about the honor bestowed on him by his colleagues.

"I guess they look at us and say, `They didn't lose a lot (of players from a 10-3 team), and the ones they lost didn't get drafted' " by the NFL, Cooper said.

The Buckeyes, who have not opened a season at No. 1 since 1980, were ranked first by 31 of the poll's 62 coaches, including Michigan's Lloyd Carr. The Wolverines - who were No. 1 on Cooper's ballot - are fifth.

Michigan and Ohio State have plenty to do before their Nov. 21 showdown. They open the season in scary places Sept. 5: Ohio State at West Virginia, ranked 12th by the coaches, and Michigan at Notre Dame, which opens at No. 24.

HOLTZ BOOSTER: Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez remains loyal to ex-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

Alvarez, who served as Holtz's defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, said he was dismayed by news reports about former Irish staffmate Joe Moore's age-discrimination suit against the university, which Moore won last month. During the trial, present Irish head coach Bob Davie testified that he "hated and despised" Holtz's methods and even questioned Holtz's mental stability.

"(Holtz) was drug through the mud a little bit," Alvarez said. "That kind of upset me."

BIG GUYS: Wisconsin offensive tackle Aaron Gibson (368 pounds) and Penn State offensive tackle Floyd Wedderburn (335 pounds) were the beefiest players to attend the Kickoff Luncheon. Both were dwarfed by the Michigan media guide, which checked in at 400 pages. . . . The line of the week was delivered by Minnesota coach Glen Mason. Asked by a reporter to discuss the "issue of character," Mason replied, "Are you talking about Bill Clinton or are you talking about the players?"