11/03/2003 1:00AM

Big conferences see more early action


After two straight weeks of only seven college football lines moving off their opening numbers during early betting in the Stardust "lottery," 19 games were bet heavily enough Sunday night to change the odds for this weekend's games.

For the uninitiated, the lottery is a procedure in which bettors sign up to get a chance to be the first to bet into the Stardust's opening numbers. They draw lots (actually, they randomly pick playing cards) to determine which spot they get in line at a limited number of betting windows that are opened after the Sunday night ESPN game kicks off around 5:30 p.m.

This gives the professionals (or anyone willing to wager $1,000) the chance to get the best numbers. It also lets the Stardust quickly see which way the money is likely to come in on a game so that adjustments can be made before the rest of the public is allowed to wager.

This week, even though college games were posted for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the only midweek game that moved was Thursday's South Carolina-Arkansas contest, in which bettors took South Carolina +7 1/2 and bet it down to 7.

The rest of the action came on Saturday's college slate. Early bettors often concentrate on smaller conferences, where lines can sometimes be seen as relatively "soft" - easier to beat. But this week they fired away on games in the big-time conferences, including Pittsburgh +4 (down to +3 1/2) vs. Virginia Tech in the Big East, a couple of Big 10 games (backing Iowa and Penn St.), and four Big 12 games (Texas, Nebraska, Texas Tech, and Colorado).

They didn't ignore the Mid-American Conference (Central Florida, Ball St., Ohio) and other non-marquee programs (Navy, Tulane, Texas-El Paso, Southern Mississippi, and Rutgers).

But the most interesting line move of all was probably on the Arizona St.-Stanford game, which the Stardust opened at pick-em. The bettors sided with ASU, backing the Sun Devils up to a 2 1/2-point favorite.

In the NFL, early bettors tabbed three home favorites (Titans, Chiefs, and Rams) and one road underdog (Bills) while also betting the over in the Ravens-Rams game.

Clarifying the chart

I get a lot of feedback about this weekly update and chart of the early line moves. Most people like the info, but others are confused. Hopefully this will clear things up.

Many people point to the losing record of the bettors and say these are horrible predictions. But these are not predictions - this is just a handicapping tool to show in which direction the odds are likely to continue.

The fact that the early bettors have had a losing record at the Stardust this year (and last year, too) is more a reflection of the solid job the Stardust has done. The professionals might be losing money at the Stardust, but they could be making more money elsewhere. For instance, they might see a game at 6 points at the Stardust but find another sports book in town or offshore that has the game at 7 1/2. Maybe they actually like the underdog more, but they're betting some on the favorite at the Stardust's lower number, trying to catch a middle.

I've talked to several bettors who routinely bet against the line moves because they feel that the farther it gets bet away from the original number, the more value exists. They want to be cheering the same sides as the sports books.

So, the chart's No. 1 objective is to let you know that if you like a team that has been bet early, you will probably want to wager right away before it moves even more. Conversely, if you like the other side, you might want to wait until it moves as far as possible to get the maximum value.

Recreational bettors might see a team favored by 3 later this week and have no idea that Las Vegas oddsmakers actually opened the game at pick-em (as could be the case with that ASU-Stanford game mentioned above).

Think of this as the equivalent of the way some horseplayers like to read the odds on the tote board. They check the morning line (which is what the accompanying chart represents on these selected games) and then watch to see if a horse gets early money or late money. Some people think that's valuable information, while others think it's meaningless.

The key is to collect and process whatever information each of us thinks is relevant and apply it on a case-by-case basis to get the best possible numbers and make the best possible decisions.