12/18/2006 1:00AM

Ducks live underdog in Vegas Bowl

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LAS VEGAS - The college football bowl season is here, with 32 games until the Jan. 8 BCS title game.

The first bowl game scheduled was Tuesday's Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, which features Northern Illinois and TCU, and being an NIU alum, I'm going to just watch that game without a bet and cheer for the Huskies. (Yes, shocking, I know.)

The next game on the slate is Thursday's Las Vegas Bowl, with the Mountain West Conference champion BYU Cougars and the Pac-10 at-large Oregon Ducks. The game is a sellout thanks to the loyal BYU backers who have bought all the extra tickets, so the Cougars will have a bit of a home-field advantage.

However, I'm going with the underdog. BYU has had a fine season, going 10-2, including an 8-0 record in the Mountain West, but its overall level of competition is suspect.

Oregon is only 7-5 and has lost its last three games, but those losses came against USC, Arizona, and Oregon St. BYU is a step down in class, and the only question is whether the Ducks will be motivated to play in a minor bowl after having such lofty expectations earlier in the year.

BYU supporters will point out that whereas Oregon lost 37-10 to Arizona, BYU lost just 16-13. But it should also be noted that BYU's loss to Arizona was in the season opener, when Arizona wasn't very good. It wasn't the same Wildcat team that beat Oregon.

BYU's strength, its John Beck-led passing attack, plays into the hands of Oregon's strength, its passing defense, which allows just 156 passing yards per game. Meanwhile, the BYU defense hasn't faced the likes of Jonathan Stewart and the Oregon rushing attack, which averages 189 yards per game, so I see the Oregon running game and pass defense setting the tone.

This game opened with BYU as a 5-point favorite, but early betting has come on Oregon, and I feel it's been on the right side. As of noon Monday, the line was mostly 3 around Vegas, with Harrah's/Caesars holding out at 3 1/2. Obviously, grab the 3 1/2 if you can get it.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit.

Regular-season college bankroll record: 39-37-1, including 2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net loss of 0.8 units.

More college football

Appalachian St. won the Division I-AA title last Friday with a 28-17 victory over Massachusetts, covering as a 3-point favorite.

Grand Valley St. won the Division II playoff with a 17-14 victory over Northwest Missouri on Saturday - most bettors got a push with Grand Valley St. as a 3-point favorite, but there were 3 1/2's available to bail out some Northwest Missouri backers.

Mount Union rolled to a 35-16 victory over Wisconsin-Whitewater for the Division III title. Mount Union was a 2-point favorite.

NFL opening-line moves

Entering the final two weeks of the NFL regular season, we're starting to see point spreads be affected by a team that has already clinched a playoff berth and could get ready to rest starters.

Last week in the Las Vegas Hilton's advance lines for the upcoming week, the Bears were a 9-point favorite over the Lions. After the Bears clinched home field throughout the NFC playoffs with their 34-31 overtime win over the Buccaneers, the line was put up at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hilton as the Bears -5o1/2. The Stratosphere made it Bears -5. Neither line prompted anyone to lay the short price with the Bears vs. a pretty bad team. It was down to 4 1/2 at just about every book on Monday morning, and the Hilton even dropped it to 4.

Before Sunday night's Chargers-Chiefs game, the Hilton and Stratosphere had the Chargers -3 vs. the Seahawks for this Sunday's game, but after the Chargers' victory, the line was adjusted to -3 1/2 and even as high as -4 at the Hilton.

Heading into Monday night's Bengals-Colts game, the Colts were -9 vs. the Texans and the Bengals were +1 vs. the Broncos for this coming Sunday's games. You can judge for yourself how the outcome of Monday night's game affects those.

Coast contest has mandatory payout

For those looking for some extra holiday spending money, you might want to try the Delta Downs Pick 5 contest at the Coast Casinos this Thursday.

There is a $44,810 carryover heading into the weekly contest, which uses the first five races at Delta. There are also daily prizes of $1,500 for the person with the highest combined mutuel payouts, with $700 for second and $300 for third, but the big prize is for anybody who can go 5 for 5. No one has accomplished the feat in the six weeks of the contest.

The jackpot starts at $44,810 but is certain to surpass $50,000 after all the $10 entry fees are added. If no one has all five winners on a ticket, then all the people with four will split the prize, and so on. There is a limit of 10 entries per person.

First post is scheduled for 4:20 p.m.