12/14/2006 1:00AM

Focus on live dogs in bowl pools

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If you're like me, you've seen an increase in the number of invitations you're getting to join college football bowl pools.

These contests - some of which have you pick the games straight-up to get the most winners or perhaps assign "confidence points," while others ask you to pick the most winners against the spread - aren't going to rival March Madness brackets, but they're certainly becoming more common.

For recreational football bettors, these are a very good thing because they force you to look at the games ahead of time. It also can help you find better lines the earlier you can figure out which way the public is likely to be betting.

But as all professional bettors know, the bowl season is a different animal from the regular season. Every team will be coming off a layoff, you generally get teams that don't have a history of facing each other, and being from different conferences they rarely have any common opponents. With fewer ways to put a value on games and statistics compiled vs. disparate competition, it's much harder to use traditional handicapping methods.

Putting it in horse racing terms, the conference season is like betting on the midweek races at your local track, where the competitors face each other all the time, or on their way up and down the claiming and allowance levels they have faced a lot of common horses. The bowl season is like the stakes cards on a big weekend where the competitors invade from all over and the comparisons are much harder to make.

There are also other factors that pop up in bowl season that don't exist the rest of the year. You often see teams that are used to going to major bowls, and then they have an off year and go to a less prestigious bowl and it's possible they won't be as motivated on the smaller stage. There are also teams that feel they deserved a better bowl bid and can put in an uninspired performance after being snubbed. But there are pitfalls to watch for with teams that overachieve during a season and get a better bowl bid than they're accustomed to - they can fall into the just-happy-to-be-there syndrome. The tough part is weighing all this information and making the right decisions.

But there is hope. If you play in any of these pools, you will find that - just like in regular betting of the games - the general public is going to line up much more often on the favorite, figuring the better team will win and, if it's a point-spread pool, just has to win by more than the number. If you play contrarian with more of an emphasis on underdogs, you stand a better chance, as you will have less competition among dog players. If you play a lot of favorites and they all come in, you're going to be hard-pressed to outperform all the other chalk players. Obviously you can't play all underdogs as there's not going to be upsets in every game, but you need to find the ones with a better-than-perceived chance to get the job done, or at least cover the spread. That's where technical handicapping comes in, looking at how the offensive and defensive lines match up and the quarterback/receiver combos vs. the secondaries, etc. Playing Team A vs. Team B in a bowl just because it's getting 10 points is not enough, but there are ways to see if a team is a live underdog.

The results of the last several years bear this out. Underdogs of more than a touchdown - which on a neutral field would normally be assumed to be the vastly inferior team - have gone a collective 25-10-1 (71 percent) against the spread. It goes to show that big favorites, especially when playing in lesser bowls against opponents they take lightly or just aren't motivated to play, have a hard time covering those big numbers, while the underrated teams they are playing come with an inspired effort.

There is a fear that the oddsmakers will adjust and take away the value from underdog players - and a case could be made that in years past a program such as Miami would certainly be more than a 3-point favorite over Nevada, and Oklahoma would be more than -8 vs. Boise State, so the oddsmakers have shaded the numbers here and there. But for the most part the public continues to back the favorites and keep the prices attractive.

Here's my list of teams that the general public will likely overlook. I'm not going to go into the reasons now as I will save those for my detailed selections in future columns. Suffice to say, value can be found by playing bowl pools.

Live underdogs to win straight-up: Oregon vs. BYU in the Dec. 21 Las Vegas Bowl, San Jose State vs. New Mexico in the Dec. 23 New Mexico Bowl, Houston vs. South Carolina in the Dec. 29 Liberty Bowl, Purdue vs. Maryland in the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl, Nevada vs. Miami in the Dec. 31 MPC Computers Bowl, Penn State vs. Tennessee in the Jan.o1 Outback Bowl, and Ohio vs. Southern Mississippi in the Jan 7 GMAC Bowl.

Live underdogs vs. spread: Middle Tennessee State +10 vs. Central Michigan in the Dec. 26 Motor City Bowl, Kansas State +7 1/2 vs. Rutgers in the Dec. 28 Texas Bowl, Navy +7 vs. Boston College in the Dec. 30 Meineke Bowl, Iowa +11 vs. Texas in the Dec. 30 Alamo Bowl, and Georgia Tech +7 vs. West Virginia in the Jan.o1 Gator Bowl.