11/28/2002 1:00AM

Gators should extend Florida State's tailspin


LAS VEGAS - This weekend is among the toughest for college football handicappers.

Although many of this weekend's games are fierce rivalries, the incentive for many of the teams is hard to gauge. Some teams have a lot of incentive to play hard as they're battling for conference championships and bowl bids. Other teams have already locked up their leagues and perhaps already know which bowl game is their destiny.

It's similar to a horseplayer trying to determine which entries in today's stakes race are primed to run big, and which are prepping for future (and higher) stakes.

Florida (+4) at Florida State

Both teams have had disappointing seasons by their standards. Florida State has already clinched the ACC title and a BCS berth despite a subpar 8-4 overall record. Florida has rebounded from a 4-3 start, posting four straight victories and covering two of its last three. Florida State has failed to cover in its last three games, including last week's 17-7 loss to North Carolina State. Throw in the situation in which starting quarterback Adrian McPherson was kicked off the team earlier this week, and it's hard to see the Seminoles being entirely focused on this game, even though it's against one of their most bitter rivals.

PLAY: Florida for 2 units.

Virginia (+7) at Virginia Tech

At the beginning of this month, Virginia Tech was ranked No. 3 in the country; now the Hokies are in danger of being the third-best team with "Virginia" in its name, having lost 21-18 to West Virginia last Wednesday. Even though they have been humbled with three straight losses to unranked teams (Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia) and shouldn't take any opponent for granted, it's got to be tempting for the players to be looking past Virginia and toward next week's chance to knock off No. 1-ranked Miami. But that's dangerous against a Virginia team that is coming off upsets of North Carolina State and Maryland.

PLAY: Virginia for 2 units.

Alabama (-13) at Hawaii

It's always tough for teams to travel to Hawaii, get over their jet lag, and ignore the temptations of paradise while preparing to play a football game. It's especially tough on favorites, as Hawaii is 16-7 against the spread as a home dog under coach June Jones. But several factors work in Alabama's favor this Saturday. For one, the team arrived earlier in the week than most teams because of the holiday, so the Tide should be acclimated. For another, Alabama is on probation, so this is the players' bowl game. In addition, Alabama is coming off an embarrassing 17-7 home loss to bitter rival Auburn and wants to end the season on a good note.

As for Hawaii, its players have known for two weeks that they will be staying at home to play in the Hawaii Bowl. With that knowledge, they had an uninspiring (and non-covering) 21-19 win over Cincinnati last week that wouldn't even be noteworthy except for the bench-clearing brawl at the end of the contest. Hawaii will have a bigger fight on its hands this week as its No. 3-ranked offense takes on Alabama's No. 3-ranked defense. I will side with the defense.

PLAY: Alabama for 1 unit.

Season record: 27-25, 12-10 on 2-units plays, for a net profit of 1.5 units.