08/30/2006 11:00PM

Consider all opinions, but bet with your own

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LAS VEGAS - People ask me all the time about handicappers they should follow, and with the college football season starting in earnest this Labor Day weekend with every major program except Air Force and Tulane in action, those conversations have increased as bettors try to find the best plays on the full card.

My advice is always the same: Do your own handicapping and don't follow anyone blindly. For one thing, everyone has hot streaks and cold streaks, so if you put in the time and effort, your results aren't going to be that far off from the so-called experts. Besides, even though the money won might be the same, there's a certain pride in picking your own winner that you don't quite get from betting someone else's pick.

That being said, following the advice of other handicappers can certainly help you fine-tune your own handicapping. If you're leaning toward a play and see someone you respect make the same pick, that should give you confidence that you're on the right side. Conversely, if you like a game but see someone you respect has come out on the other team, you might want to take another look at the matchup and see if you missed something. I would never recommend flip-flopping to the other side after hearing someone else's opinion, but evaluating other opinions can get you to pass on more games and focus more on the times you have an edge.

Last year on the Stardust Line radio show on Sunday nights, Dave Cokin was 34-13-1 (72 percent) against the spread picking the next weekend's games vs. the opening numbers. This year, with the Stardust show being no more, Cokin is joining John Kelly on the Leroy's Line, which starting this Sunday will be broadcast live from the Riviera sports book and be renamed the Leroy's Line Show from the Riviera. The show will be streamed and archived at americanwagering.com-/radio/index.html. This Sunday's show is 9-11 p.m. Pacific, and once the NFL season starts, the show will air immediately after the Sunday night game each week.

Last Sunday, for his first picks of this season, Cokin gave out Washington St. +14 1/2 vs. Auburn, Arkansas +9 vs. USC, and Baylor +7 1/2 vs. TCU. I had initially decided to pass on the first two games, but during my off-season research, I felt that Baylor was improving and might be a live home dog vs. TCU in the opener. Hearing that Cokin was on the same side, coupled with the fact that a few weeks earlier I had heard "Maj Ent," who went 56-28 (67 percent) last year to win the Leroy's College Challenge, mention on a radio show that he also liked Baylor, convinced me to pull the trigger.

Kelly has summed it up best on his numerous shows: "Listen to everyone, but follow no one."

We're all in this together against the bookmakers, so a little sharing of knowledge is important. Just remember - in the end, it's your money, and it should be your decision.

After starting out with the under in the Northwestern-Miami (Ohio) game on Thursday, here are the rest of my bankroll plays this opening weekend.

Northern Illinois (+17 1/2) at Ohio St.

Ohio St. is the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, but they don't get a walkover in the season opener this Saturday vs. Northern Illinois. (Full disclosure statement: Northern Illinois is my alma mater.)

The Huskies are loaded on offense, with running back Garrett Wolfe, the top back most people don't know about, and two capable quarterbacks. Now, the Northern Illinois defense probably won't be able to slow down the Buckeyes attack, with quarterback Troy Smith, running back Antonio Pittman, and receiver Ted Ginn Jr., but the Huskies can win this game one of two ways: They can match the Buckeyes score for score - OSU returns just two starters on defense, so it should take them a while to jell - or they can get in the backdoor late vs. the OSU backups. It's also not a good schedule spot for the Buckeyes. Next week, they face Texas, which is ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll and No. 3 in the AP poll, in a rematch of last year's big game, so the natural tendency is to look ahead.

PLAY: Northern Illinois for 1 unit.

Hawaii at Alabama (o/u 53)

This is one of a dozen unders I bet this weekend in anticipation of the public betting down the totals with the new rule changes intended to shorten college games. This one has only gone down from 54 to 53 so far and still looks like a bargain. Hawaii coach June Jones has said that the new rules could cost his team two touchdowns per game, but he should also worry more about how the Alabama defense will keep his team from scoring. In three games last year vs. big-time programs - USC, Michigan St., and Fresno St. - the Warriors scored 17, 14, and 13 points. Alabama will again try to win games with its stellar defense and the running of Kenneth Darby, so this shouldn't be a shootout.

PLAY: Hawaii-Alabama under 53 points for 1 unit.

TCU at Baylor (+7)

Moving to Sunday, Baylor should be a live home dog vs. Texas Christian. Baylor will probably still be overmatched in the Big 12, but the Bears have covered their last six home games vs. non-conference opponents and will enjoy stepping down in class a little here, though TCU is certainly a quality program. The Baylor offense returns eight starters, and the addition of offensive coordinator Mike Leach from Texas Tech should help. TCU's strength is its offense, so Baylor's young defense will have to step up early, but this should be a relatively low-scoring game, in the 40's probably. The Bears should be able to stay within a touchdown, if not pull the outright upset.

PLAY: Baylor for 1 unit.