01/26/2005 12:00AM

Arena's full menu ought to satisfy football-hungry fans

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There's a two-week gap between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl, so that means there's no football this weekend, right?

Wrong.

With everyone's mind on pigskin and an open spot on the calendar, the Arena Football League is kicking off its season with two games on Friday, one on Saturday, and five on Sunday, including a doubleheader on NBC.

"I think that was a great move," Las Vegas Gladiators spokesman Adam Grant said. "People are going to be jonesing for football this weekend."

Philadelphia is certainly football-crazy right now, and the Soul's opener vs. the Austin Wranglers will be one of the featured early games on Sunday at 9 a.m. Pacific. Some parts of the country will get the Colorado Crush at the Orlando Predators.

In the second half of the twinbill, the Chicago Rush-Dallas Desperados game will be shown in the East and Midwest, with the defending champion San Jose SaberCats-Tampa Bay Storm being shown in the South and in northern California, and the Las Vegas Gladiators-Los Angeles Avengers being shown in the rest of the West.

In addition to NBC's exclusive Sunday network TV package, the AFL will also have regional coverage on cable's Fox Sports Networks. The number of non-NBC games will increase from only 39 last year to more than 120 this season, according to an AFL press release.

In another exciting move for the league, the Arena Bowl, the league's championship game that for the past 18 years has been held at the home field of the team with the best record, will now be going the way of the NFL with a neutral-site title game - in Las Vegas on June 12 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The AFL has contracted from 19 teams last year to 17 this season. The league lost franchises in North Carolina, Indiana, and Detroit, but Nashville is back with a team after a three-year hiatus.

The Western Division - San Jose, Arizona, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles - is expected to be the strongest. Chris David, managing editor of vegasinsider.com, follows the AFL closely and says San Jose is again the team to beat, with the Arizona Rattlers as a perennial contender.

"The SaberCats are stacked - they're head and shoulders above everyone else," David said. "They could win their second straight title and third in four years, just like the Patriots in the NFL."

David said the City of Brotherly Love could have another top team to cheer for besides the Super Bowl-bound Eagles.

"One team to keep an eye on is Philadelphia," he said. "They had the biggest free-agent signing with quarterback Tony Graziani coming over from Los Angeles, as well as receiver Steve Smith from Grand Rapids."

David said other teams that could also turn some heads are Tampa Bay, which he said is a popular pick to face San Jose in the Arena Bowl, plus Chicago and New York.

With all that in mind, it's not too surprising that four of the road teams are favored this weekend. The full rundown, with odds from Las Vegas Sports Consultants: On Friday, Columbus is -6 at home vs. Nashville with a total of 92 points, and Arizona is a 12 1/2-point road favorite at Grand Rapids with a total of 93.

Saturday, Georgia is a 3-point home favorite vs. New Orleans with a total of 93. Sunday, Orlando is -3 1/ 2 vs. Colorado with a total of 92, Philadelphia is -4 1/ 2 on the road at Austin with a total of 98, Chicago is -5 at Dallas with a total of 97, San Jose is -6 at Tampa Bay with a total of 100, and last but certainly not least, Las Vegas is a 5-point choice at home vs. Los Angeles with a weekend-high betting total of 103.

The Gladiators won five of their last six games after a slow start in 2004 to just miss the playoffs. With record-setting quarterback Clint Dolezel and the league's top receiver, Marcus Nash, the Gladiators should again have one of the most explosive offenses in the AFL. They will also have a better chance to break from the gate strongly, as three of their first four games are at the Thomas & Mack Center.

After Sunday's opener, the Gladiators travel to San Jose for a 7:30 p.m. game on Feb. 5, then play back-to-back home games vs. New York at 7 p.m. on Feb. 11 and vs. Georgia at 3 p.m. on Feb. 20.

Basketball on bettors' minds, too

Football is king, but basketball is still a popular betting sport at this time of the year as the NBA season continues to heat up and college b-ball marches toward the NCAA tournament.

A quick check of the futures board shows that LVSC has the Spurs as the 8-5 favorite to win the NBA title, followed by two very hot teams, the Suns and Heat, at 5-2, and the defending champion Pistons at 5-1.

In college basketball, North Carolina is the 5-2 favorite, with undefeated and No. 1-ranked Illinois a co-second choice with Wake Forest at 4-1.

Leroy's Challenge bounces along

Speaking of college basketball, the Leroy's Challenge, in which well-known handicappers square off by picking five games apiece in a single-elimination format, continues Friday nights at the Riviera sports book.

Two weeks ago, professional gambler Alan Boston went 4-1 to defeat Jeff Haney of the Las Vegas Sun. Last week, Ted Sevransky and David Malinsky both struggled to 1-4 marks, but Sevransky won his best bet to advance to the next round.

This Friday, the program, which is also aired live on KBAD AM-920, will feature LVSC's John Harper vs. Dave "the Meat Man" Scandaliato of meatandpotatoes.com, who also hosts a local radio show that is aired here in Vegas as well as in his former home of New Orleans.

In addition to the contestants playing for the $5,000 first-place prize and another $5,000 going to charity, there will be drawings the next two weeks for fans to be represented by one of the handicappers. If the 'capper wins the whole thing, his partner also wins $1,000.