08/25/2003 11:00PM

College changes mirror NFL rules


LAS VEGAS - There were two college football games last Saturday, but the season really starts in earnest this week with 45 games on the betting boards.

Before we get to Saturday’s action, the traditional big day for college football, we have five games on Thursday night and one on Friday night. To demonstrate the skewing of the college football schedule in recent years, there are three games this Sunday and another two on Monday.

With more college games scheduled for Sundays and Mondays, days previously reserved for NFL games, it makes sense that the NCAA has instituted some rule changes that make the college game more similar to the pros.

The “halo rule” on punt returns is gone. In recent years, the kicking team had to give the punt returner a 2-yard cushion to catch the ball whether he signaled for a fair catch or not. It led to a lot of judgment calls and was roundly criticized. Now, the defense only has to give the returner an “unimpeded opportunity” to catch the ball, which is much closer to how pass interference is ruled, and in line with the NFL rule on punt returns.

Another change gives teams the option of accepting a post-touchdown celebration penalty on the kickoff instead of the extra point, forcing the team to kick off from its own 20-yard line. In addition, the clock will not start on kickoffs until the ball is legally touched in the field of play, again, just like the NFL rule.

Thursday and Friday games

Bettors have been backing the home teams so far in early wagering. Kansas St. was bet from -26 1/2 to -28 1/2 in its opener at a neutral site - which was really a home game - against California last Saturday. This Thursday, Northern Illinois opened as an 8 1/2-point dog vs. Maryland, but the line was down to 7 1/2 as of noon Tuesday. Akron opened as a 10-point favorite over Kent St. and has been bet up to -10 1/2 at most books and 11 at a few others. BYU opened as a 3-point choice over Georgia Tech and is now up to -3 1/2, and Utah opened -19 vs. Utah St. and has been bet up to -20. In addition, for Friday’s only game, UNLV opened as a 2-point underdog vs. Toledo and the line has been bet down to 1.

Fighting the temptation to take Northern Illinois (my alma mater) and UNLV (my new hometown team), I landed on two home teams for my first two bankroll plays of the season.

Georgia Tech at BYU (-3 1/2)

BYU seeks revenge for a 28-19 loss at Georgia Tech last year. Of course, coming off an uncharacteristic 5-7 season, the Cougars will be in a revenge situation many times this year. BYU’s offense wasn’t terrible last year, but was hurt by turnovers. A year of experience under quarterback Matt Berry’s belt should work wonders, as well as the return of a healthy Marcus Whalen at running back.

While BYU returns all 11 starters on defense, Georgia Tech lost many key players on offense. Star running back Tony Hollings was declared academically ineligible this spring and entered the NFL’s supplemental draft - he’s now performing well in preseason games for the Houston Texans - so he’ll be missed. In addition, the offensive line has been decimated by academic problems and injuries to three starters during practices this month, so Hollings’s absence will be magnified and make it even harder for inconsistent quarterback A.J. Suggs.

Georgia Tech’s defense should be tough again this year, but the offense isn’t likely to do enough - especially early in the season as the young fill-ins gain experience - to help them in the opener.

PLAY: BYU for 1 unit.

Kent St. at Akron (-10 1/2)

I felt this line would be in the 17-20 point range. Akron really came on strong at the end of last season, winning four of their last six, including a 34-20 upset of Marshall. In fact, the Zips closed their season with a 48-10 blowout at Kent St.

All 11 Akron starters return on offense, including quarterback Charlie Frye and 1,000-yard rusher Bobby Hendry. There’s no reason they can’t put up a ton of points at home against Kent.

Joshua Cribbs is a talented quarterback for Kent, both running and passing, but Akron’s defense really came on strong at the end of last season. Akron’s defense allowed only 19 points per game down the stretch, and returns six starters from that unit.

Even if Cribbs has a big day, Akron should be able to answer every score and then some.

PLAY: Akron for 1 unit.

College contests kickoff, too

Reminder: The “College 101” contest at the Park Place Entertainment casinos (Caesars Palace, Bally’s, Paris, Flamingo, Las Vegas Hilton, etc.) and the “College Knowledge” contest at the smaller Station Casinos outlets (Fiesta Rancho, Fiesta Henderson, Barley’s, Wildfire, Wild Wild West) begin this weekend.

The deadline for both is before Saturday morning’s games. Neither contest will include Thursday or Friday games this week, though “College 101” usually includes a Thursday prime-time game in its list of 20 on the contest card.

“College 101” contestants pick 10 games a week against the spread, while “College Knowledge” participants choose 15 out of the 20 games listed on its contest card.