10/02/2003 12:00AM

Even on road, let's lay points


LAS VEGAS - The way the BCS is set up, the upper-echelon teams must put most of their focus on conference games or they will be left out of the tournament.

This week, all four of my college plays are on conference games. Surprisingly, I land on three favorites, but that's probably a case of feeling these teams are motivated to start their conference schedules convincingly. Another theme is I'm siding with the superior quarterback in each game.

Virginia (-7 1/2) at North Carolina

I'm not fond of laying more than a touchdown on the road, but all the matchups favor Virginia in this ACC game. Virginia is one of the best teams in the conference, probably second only to Florida St., and its only loss this season was to South Carolina when the Cavaliers' star quarterback, Matt Schaub, the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year, was out with a shoulder injury. Schaub is healthy again and passed a test last week in leading his team to victory over Wake Forest. Schaub and his offensive line, which opened huge holes for running back Wali Lundy (137 yards last week and 381 for the season, tops in the ACC), are dropping in class vs. a North Carolina defense that hasn't slowed down anybody. Virginia's only weakness this year has been against the run, but the Tar Heels don't have a ground game to take advantage of that. Quarterback Darian Durant is the team's leading rusher with a mere 163 yards. He is more dangerous throwing the ball, but that plays into a Virginia strength. Another reason to risk laying the points on the road is that North Carolina has failed to cover the spread in its last nine games at Chapel Hill. This isn't the basketball season.

PLAY: Virginia for 1 unit.

Tennessee (+1) at Auburn

Two weeks ago, I liked two SEC games: Georgia over LSU and Tennessee over Florida. Unfortunately, I thought Georgia was the more likely winner and used that play in my weekly picks. I'm sticking with Tennessee this time. The Vols were impressive in a 24-10 win at Florida before suffering a letdown as a 17-point favorite last week in a narrow 23-20 overtime win against South Carolina. But that "bounce" was expected off a big win, especially against SC coach Lou Holtz, who knows how to motivate his troops. But this week Tennessee should be fully focused and give another top performance. The Vols' defense is superb against the run, allowing only 3 yards per carry and less than 100 yards a game, and rushing is Auburn's biggest strength. Auburn was highly rated coming into this season but laid back-to-back eggs (nearly goose eggs) in 23-0 and 17-3 losses to Southern Cal and Georgia Tech, respectively. The wins over Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky are nothing to brag about in the SEC. The Auburn defense ranks No. 2 in the nation, yielding 237.5 yards per game, but that has a lot to do with its last two games against inferior competition. With two top defenses, neither team will run away with this game, and field position will be key. Tennessee has one of the best punters in the nation in Dustin Colquitt, who figures to help the Vols win the field-position battle. I prefer the balanced attack of Tennessee with quarterback Casey Clausen at the controls. He's a gamer.

PLAY: Tennessee for 1 unit

Southern Miss at Cincinnati (-8)

Last week, two of my winning picks came by going against Southern Mississippi (a 38-14 loser to Nebraska) and on Cincinnati (an admittedly lucky back-door cover in a 42-37 loss to Miami-Ohio). I will use the same formula this week, as they face each other in a crucial Conference USA game. Southern Miss is going with a quarterback-by-committee situation, with the injury to Mickey D'Angelo, while Cincy has one of the best QBs in the conference in Gino Guidugli. The Bearcats also get nice balance from a running game led by Richard Hall, who is averaging more than 200 yards per game. Southern Miss has not fared well on the road (3-10 against the spread over the past three years) or as an underdog (1-8 in the same period).

PLAY: Cincinnati for 1 unit.

Texas A&M at Texas Tech (-6 1/2)

This has the makings a Texas shootout. A&M has a 2-2 record but is 0-4 against the spread (Tech is 3-1 straight up and ATS). Neither team's defense has stepped up this season. Tech's B.J. Symons is coming off a record-setting performance, completing 44 of 64 passes for 661 yards and six touchdowns, and he ran for another. Symons spreads the ball around as his leading receivers, Wes Welker and Carlos Francis, have 26 and 24 catches, respectively. The Texas A&M defense, while worse against the run (illustrated in a narrow win over Utah and its loss to Virginia Tech), allowed 283 yards passing and five touchdowns last week vs. Pittsburgh. The Tech defense isn't much better, but creates turnovers. Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal is expected to play, though nursing a sore ankle. Look for Tech safety Ryan Aycock to add to his four interceptions on the season as A&M passes a lot to try and keep up with Tech. Again, I will go with the more consistent quarterback.

PLAY: Texas Tech for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 10-12 for a net loss of 3.2 units.