08/16/2002 12:00AM

Books ready for the old college try

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Forget the NFL preseason; the real games start Thursday with the kickoff of college football.

Virginia is a 2 1/2-point favorite as it hosts Colorado State in the Jim Thorpe Classic on Thursday night. That's the most competitively priced game on the opening week of play, as the lines increase with each game on Friday and Saturday.

Wisconsin is a 7-point favorite over Fresno State in the John Thompson Foundation Classic on Friday in a rematch of last season's game, in which Fresno St. upset the Badgers behind David Carr. On Saturday, Ohio State is a 7- to 7 1/2-point favorite over Texas Tech in the Pigskin Classic, and the mismatches really begin with NC State -13 vs. New Mexico, Nebraska -22 vs. Arizona State, Florida State -22 vs. Iowa State and Virginia Tech -37 vs. Arkansas State.

Of the teams playing this week, Florida State, Nebraska, and Ohio State are given legitimate chances to contend for the national title, according to odds released by Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which provides odds to 90 percent of Nevada's legal sports books as well as the offshore industry.

Oklahoma is the 9-2 favorite to win the Fiesta Bowl (this year's BCS title game), followed by Florida State (5-1), defending champion Miami-Fla. (5-1), Texas (6-1), Tennessee (7-1), Nebraska (8-1), Florida (10-1), Colorado (15-1), Ohio State (15-1), and the Buckeyes' main rival, Michigan (20-1).

While most books are offering odds to win the Fiesta Bowl, others are also taking bets on over/under season wins for college teams.

Bettors looking to wager on Florida State, Nebraska, and Ohio State, who all will play 13 games this season, have to do so before the kickoff of their first games this week. Florida State's over/under is 11, Nebraska's is 10, and Ohio State's is 9 1/2. Virginia Tech, which is 30-1 in the Fiesta Bowl futures, also has an over/under of 9 1/2.

All other teams play 12 games. Oklahoma's over/under is 10. Other top teams and their over/under win totals: Texas (10), Miami-Fla. (9 1/2), Tennessee (9 1/2), Florida (9), Colorado (9) and Michigan (9).

Hoops odds ready, too

Quick - name last season's NCAA men's basketball champion. If it took you a few seconds to remember it was Maryland, don't be ashamed. Duke was the prohibitive favorite all season until it was knocked out by Indiana.

This year's March Madness could be even more wide-open if oddsmakers at the Imperial Palace and the Palms are to be believed. Even before the football season has begun, the two casinos have posted futures on the 2003 basketball championships.

Arizona is the lukewarm favorite at 5-1, with Kansas at 6-1. There's big dropoff to the next tier with UCLA, Florida, Kentucky, Texas, and Oklahoma all listed at 15-1. The next group has Duke, Michigan State, UConn, Alabama, and Pittsburgh at 20-1.

In all, 99 schools are listed with all others eligible NCAA schools grouped in a field bet at 50-1, so tourists can have a financial as well as a rooting interest in their alma mater. But even the most loyal local boosters probably won't be tempted by prices of 200-1 on UNLV or 1,000-1 on Nevada.

Monday action

Mondays generally are a good day to take off for horseplayers, but at this time of year - when Saratoga and Del Mar are conducting Monday cards - it's another day at the betting windows.

A few Las Vegas race books are starting to take notice and offer more promotions to attract players on this bonus day. Texas Station has added Mondays to its contests that previously ran just Wednesday through Friday. And the Coast Casinos has an even more ambitious offering this Monday with Del Mar Day at its Orleans, Gold Coast, Barbary Coast, and Suncoast race books.

The festivities begin at the Orleans at 9 a.m. with a free seminar, which will be simulcast live to the other three Coast books. Las Vegas Sun turf editor and Daily Racing From contributor Ralph Siraco will host the seminar, which will feature Bruno DeJulio of Today's Racing Digest and Todd Schrupp of Television Games Network. All three are participants in the "Toast of the Coast" contest, in which eight handicappers make selections every day of the Del Mar meet.

All four Coast properties will then take entries from 10 a.m. to 1:55 p.m. for a free $5,000 handicapping contest on the Del Mar card, which starts at 2 p.m. First prize is $2,500 and the top five finishers will cash. If this isn't the richest free contest in Vegas history, I haven't found anyone who remembers a bigger one.

In addition, anyone making a $20 bet on a Del Mar race will receive a free "Toast of the Coast" hat.

More racing notes

Future book odds on the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies races went up Tuesday at the Park Place Entertainment books. On the first day of wagering, early money drove Vindication down from 10-1 to 8-1 as the favorite in the Juvenile. Whywhywhy and Sky Mesa are the co-second choices at 12-1 with Congrats at 15-1. In the Juvenile Fillies, Awsome Humor is the 12-1 favorite, followed by Buffythecenterfold, Santa Catarina and Stellar all at 15-1.

o Vindication has been bet down to 35-1 as the favorite in Coast Casinos' 2003 Kentucky Derby future book. Gentlemans Club and Sky Mesa are 90-1 and everyone else is still at least 100-1.

o With Bob Baffert maintaining that War Emblem is going to the Pacific Classic, Medaglia d'Oro is now the clear-cut 7-5 favorite in the Travers future book at Coast Casinos. War Emblem is still listed at 3-1 in case Baffert pulls another Danthebluegrassman surprise as he did the morning of the Derby draw. Magic Weisner is 6-1, followed by Puzzlement at 7-1, and Iron Deputy at 8-1.

Culver leaves website

Russ Culver, one of the most well-known and respected handicappers in Las Vegas, has parted ways with vegasinsider.com. Culver had been VI's director of sports analysis since the website launched in 1995.

Culver, former sports book manager of the Mirage and co-creator of the Glantz-Culver Line, won just about every major handicapping tournament in town during the 1999 season. Before his resignation, he was scheduled to host the fifth Annual Vegas Insider Football Handicapping Seminar this coming Saturday at Palace Station.