12/04/2003 12:00AM

Favored Irish solid bet at Syracuse


LAS VEGAS - There are only six college football games on Saturday, but three of them could have a direct impact on the national championship.

No. 2-ranked Southern Cal hosts Oregon St. at 1:30 p.m. Pacific time, with 5 p.m. kickoffs slated for the SEC title game - No. 3 Louisiana State versus Georgia - and the Big 12 championship of No. 1 Oklahoma taking on Kansas State.

The games will not only be followed closely by partisan fans in Los Angeles; Baton Rouge, La.; and Norman, Okla. College football fans from coast to coast and oddsmakers in Las Vegas will be watching to see who will meet in the Sugar Bowl, this year's BCS title game, on Jan. 4.

But even though the matchup hasn't been officially set, some sports books in Las Vegas have been taking bets on the game. In late October, the MGM Mirage properties opened Oklahoma as a 10 1/2-point favorite over "all others."

"All of the early money came on 'all others,' " MGM Mirage race and sports book director Robert Walker said Thursday. "We went all the way down to 9 1/2, and since then it's been mostly Oklahoma money. Currently, the line is 10.

"We'll certainly know a lot more after this weekend. USC is the determining factor. If they make it, the line will probably be Oklahoma -9. LSU will probably be an 11-point underdog to Oklahoma."

Walker said he expects the public to bet the underdog outright in any national title game, especially with the recent upsets of Oklahoma over Florida State three seasons ago and last year with Ohio State knocking off favored Miami.

With that in mind, it should also be noted that a lot of handicappers have been on local radio recently and to a man they say that they think Oklahoma will be between a 7- to 10-point favorite over USC and they would like the underdog. So don't be surprised to see the number shaded a little lower.

USC appears to have the easiest game on Saturday, as the Trojans are anywhere between a 21- and 23-point home favorite over Oregon State at sports books around town. LSU has been bet up from a 2 1/2- to a 3-point favorite over Georgia while Oklahoma is a 14-point favorite over Kansas State.

Walker echoes many people who believe Oklahoma has such a big lead in the BCS that the Sooners will still make the title game even if they lose Saturday night. The feeling is that the Sooners wouldn't drop too far in the polls - since a loss would be only their first - and that they would still be high enough to stay in the title game based on power ratings and strength of schedule.

"But it would certainly affect the line," Walker said.

The lines on Saturday's marquee games appear too tight for my liking. I can make arguments for either side in each game, so I'll pass. However, I will share an interesting betting strategy from a Daily Racing Form reader named "Bill," who showed me a $50 parlay (at odds of 13-5) with Oregon State +22 and LSU -2 1/2. His reasoning was that if Oregon State beats USC or even plays the Trojans very tight, then LSU would have added incentive in its game vs. Georgia.

Furthermore, he said that other bettors might have the same idea on Saturday afternoon - and if USC loses, the line on LSU might climb to 4 or 5 or even 6 before kickoff. Since he would be looking at a $130 profit on his parlay if LSU covers the 2 1/2 vs. Georgia, "Bill" said he would then consider risking $110 on Georgia and trying to catch a middle.

I'm not sure the books would adjust the line that aggressively, but it's an interesting scenario to keep an eye on. It might not come through this time, but there could be opportunities in the future to try something similar.

There are some other tempting games on the betting board Saturday, foremost being Hawaii getting 11 points at home vs. Boise State. Hawaii is coming off a 37-29 home upset of Alabama and looked much improved with Jason Whieldon at quarterback. Coach June Jones has been giving mixed signals about whether he will start Whieldon or his former star pupil, Timmy Chang, this Saturday.

Boise State, however, is having a great season and could be undefeated if not for a controversial call in a 26-24 loss at Oregon State in the Broncos' third game. The Boise State offense can put up as many points as anyone, and Hawaii's lack of defense scares me, so I just can't pull the trigger.

Instead, with the college bankroll showing a net loss of 1 unit on the season, I'll just go with my strongest play to try to get back to even before starting the bowl season.

Notre Dame (-2 1/2) at Syracuse

Both of these teams are 5-6 but are heading in opposite directions. Syracuse has lost three straight games after a 5-3 start, and coach Paul Pasqualoni's job is in jeopardy. Notre Dame started the season 2-6 but has won its last three games. In addition, Notre Dame has covered its last three games on the road (at Pitt, at Boston College, and last week's rout at Stanford), and Syracuse's home-field advantage in the Carrier Dome isn't as intimidating as it once was. As far as more technical aspects in this matchup, Notre Dame should control the line of scrimmage. The Irish offensive line continues to open big holes for emerging star tailback Julius Jones (218 yards last week), and the defensive line, which allowed Stanford only 20 rushing yards last week, should put the clamps on Syracuse's Walter Reyes, who is slowed by a bruised knee. Inconsistent quarterback R.J. Anderson hasn't always come through for the Orangemen, and the Irish pass rush (36 sacks) won't make it easy for him. Syracuse looked like it might have given up on the season in last week's 24-7 at Rutgers, so I'll take the hotter team and lay the short price.

PLAY: Notre Dame for 1 unit.

Last week: 0-2 for a net loss of 2.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 32-30 for a net loss of 1 unit.