08/24/2003 11:00PM

Be wary of big-name favorites at double digits

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A few weeks ago, it was abundantly clear the money came in on all the losing sides in the first full slate of NFL preseason games. The lesson learned was the "smart money" doesn't guarantee a winner. As much as we like to call this "sports investing," it's still gambling.

Well, if that was lesson No. 1, then No. 2 was demonstrated last Saturday in the first major college football game of the season, Kansas St. vs. California. I have been chomping at the bit to get the season started and really looked closely at this game for my first bankroll play. Kansas St. was clearly the better team, returning 12 starters from a team that went 11-2 last year and was playing as well as any team down the stretch.

Kansas St. opened as a 26 1/2-point favorite and was bet up to 28 1/2. Kansas St. was tempting, but I had to stop and remind myself to not fire away on a game just because it was on television and the only game on the betting board. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that was too many points to lay in a season opener and I passed.

Kansas St. dominated from the start, and even though they led 27-7 in the second quarter, they never got clear of the number. The Wildcats' defense didn't live up to expectations and Kansas St. settled for a 42-28 victory.

Another lesson to be learned from this game is to be wary of the top teams laying a large spread. We have all seen tons of early-season blowouts in college football when the "haves" beat up on the "have nots." But, there's often a price to pay for backing those teams. This week, there's Miami-Fla. -28 vs. Louisiana Tech on Thursday night; Penn St. -24 vs. Temple; Michigan -34 vs. Central Michigan; Washington St. -28 vs. Idaho; Oklahoma -33 vs. North Texas; LSU -35 vs. UL Monroe; and Texas -29 1/2 vs. New Mexico St.

It's very tempting to predict big blowouts by juggernauts, but tread lightly when giving many points.

Pennington injury impacts odds

When Jets quarterback Chad Pennington broke his wrist in Saturday's game vs. the Giants, it caused a big swing in odds offered at the Imperial Palace. The Jets, who were 7-2 to win the competitive AFC East, were raised to 7-1 after it was learned Pennington would be out at least 12 weeks, and possibly the whole season. Their odds to win the AFC raised from 9-1 to 22-1 and Super Bowl odds ballooned from 20-1 to 50-1.

Their season opener vs. the Redskins on Thursday night, Sept. 4, was at pick-em before the injury. The Jets opened last spring as a 2-point favorite. After Pennington's injury, the line was adjusted to Redskins -3.

A similar move happened two Saturdays ago when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was injured. Atlanta had been favored by 2 1/2 over the Cowboys for their Sept. 7 season opener and the line was moved to pick-em. Although Vick is expected to miss only about four regular season games, odds on the Falcons did rise. After being 17-10 to win the NFC South, they were raised to 7-2. They are 10-1 to win the NFC (after being 11-2) and 20-1 to win the Super Bowl (after being 12-1).

Super turnout for SuperContest

The early-bird deadline for the SuperContest at the Las Vegas Hilton passed Sunday with 214 people putting up the $1,500 entry fee.

Last year's SuperContest drew a record 281 entrants, with 190 signing up by the early-bird deadline, making them eligible for a $10,000 bonus mini tournament over the last three weeks of the season.

If the field continues to grow at its current rate and reaches 300, first place (at 40 percent of all entry fees) would be $180,000. The deadline to get in the contest, in which handicappers pick five NFL games against the spread each week, is 1 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5.

Sports betting notes

Las Vegas native Kurt Busch capped an eventful week on Saturday night with a victory in the Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. The previous week, he had been punched out by Jimmy Spencer after an incident on the track. The 5-1 betting favorite in his home town, he found fellow drivers and the Bristol fans openly backed Spencer. It was at Bristol where the Busch-Spencer rivalry began in April 2002 when Busch bumped Spencer out of the way for his first Winston Cup win. Saturday's victory completed a sweep at the Bristol bullring for Busch this year.

- Later Saturday night, Laila Ali pummeled Christy Martin in their much-hyped women's boxing match. Ali, a -500 favorite, dominated from the start and knocked out Martin in the fourth round.

- Darren Clarke, a 60-1 shot, won the NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. He beat runner-up Jonathan Kaye, an even longer shot at 100-1, by four strokes. Tiger Woods, the 7-2 favorite, was the biggest challenger until he bogeyed three of his last seven holes and finished six shots behind Clarke.

- Kirk Triplett, the 20-1 third choice, beat Tim Herron, the 16-1 favorite, by three strokes in the PGA's other tournament this past weekend, the Reno-Tahoe Open. Triplett finished the tournament at 17-under, tying the course and tournament record at the Montreaux Golf and Country Club.