09/18/2002 11:00PM

Florida's going to lose another crucial game

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LAS VEGAS - This weekend marks the last non-conference games for a lot of college teams, and handicappers will be viewing these non-league battles intently to try and pick up clues and compare common opponents for when the conference seasons begin in full force next weekend.

Saturday's marquee matchup is in the SEC as No. 4 Tennessee takes on No. 10 Florida in nationally televised game on CBS (3:30 p.m. Eastern). But before we get to that game, I have two other teams that jump out as live dogs.

Southern Cal (+4) at Kansas State

It happens every year: Kansas State beats up on a cupcake schedule, gets nationally ranked, then gets knocked off its high horse when facing a quality team. Kansas State is 4-0 with wins over Division I-AA Western Kentucky (48-3), Louisiana-Monroe (68-0), and Eastern Illinois (63-13). USC has already beaten perennial strong programs Auburn (24-7) and Colorado (40-3). USC is No. 1 in the nation in defense, allowing 171 yards a game against much better competition. In addition, USC is looking for revenge for a 10-6 home loss to K-State last year. QB Carson Palmer is much more comfortable in coach Pete Carroll's system. Getting more than a field goal, especially considering Southern California has already won at a Big 12 school, in its dominating win over Colorado, is a pleasant surprise.

Play: Southern Cal for 2 units.

N. Carolina State (+3) at Texas Tech

I'm also getting points with the better team in this matchup. N.C. State has built its 4-0 record with easy victories over New Mexico, East Tennessee State, Navy, and Wake Forest. Texas Tech poses a different challenge with a diverse passing attack led by QB Kliff Kingsbury, but N.C. State has allowed only 353 passing yards (admittedly against weak passing teams) and this isn't too much of a step up in class. Texas Tech was able to contain Mississippi QB Eli Manning last week in a 42-28 victory, but N.C. State QB Philip Rivers is playing better than the heavily hyped Manning and is the top-rated passer in the country.

Play: N.C. State for 2 units.

Florida at Tennessee (-4)

A berth in the SEC title game could very well be on the line in this game. Florida has already lost its first crucial game of the year, getting blown out by Miami-Fla., 41-16, two weeks ago. That wouldn't be an embarrassment for 99 percent of the schools in the country. Tennessee, led by underrated QB Casey Clausen, has the weapons to do a similar job on the Florida defense, including the return of wide receiver Kelly Washington. Tennessee has had two weeks to prepare for this game, and coach Philip Fullmer is 17-4 after a bye week. If Florida QB Rex Grossman wasn't already wishing he had followed Steve Spurrier to the NFL, he will definitely be thinking it after the Tennessee defense gets through with him.

Play: Tennessee for 1 unit.

Houston (+36) at Texas

No. 3-ranked Texas has dominated this series, winning the last six meetings by an average score of 47-19, including a 53-26 victory last year. But as you can see, neither of those margins will cover this giant spread. Houston is able to run the ball, with Joffrey Reynolds seventh in the nation with an average of 137 yards per game, and that will help run the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of the Longhorns' powerful offense. Texas should still win handily, but it won't have an incentive to win by more than three or four touchdowns. Houston just needs to score once or twice to easily cover.

Play: Houston for 1 unit.

Season record: 3-8 for -7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).