12/02/2004 1:00AM

Good week to avoid marquee matchups


LAS VEGAS - Saturday's college football schedule, starting with the Army-Navy battle and including the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 title games, is fun to watch, but a tough one to bet.

With only 10 games available to bettors, it's pretty easy to have an opinion on every game. But one of the first rules of sports betting is not to bet games just because they're on TV or because you hear about them all week. All that means is that the oddsmakers have all of that same information and the lines tend to be really sharp.

On first thought, it was tempting to back the underdogs in the marquee matchups, those being Tennessee +14 vs. Auburn in the SEC championship game, Colorado +22 vs. Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, and UCLA +24 vs. Southern Cal. But if those games were being played among a full 50-game slate of major college football in October or November, they would not be strong enough plays to make the cut.

Last week's Notre Dame vs. USC game showed how risky it is to go against a highly ranked team out to impress pollsters and computers. Even though the Irish played hard and stayed close early, USC overcame them and even used a fake punt in the fourth quarter to help run up the score. Oklahoma and Auburn are in the same position this week, so that has to be taken into consideration.

The other games on the card are tempting, as I feel Miami will cover the seven-point spread vs. Virginia Tech and Navy should cover -12 1/2 vs. Army. I don't like laying a touchdown or more, however.

So, I just have two bankroll plays, both in games that won't get nearly as much attention from oddsmakers or other bettors.

California at Southern Miss (+24)

This game was originally supposed to be played Sept. 16, but was postponed because of Hurricane Ivan. It now becomes a regular-season finale for the California Golden Bears, who will be scoreboard-watching to see if the teams ahead of them in the BCS rankings (USC, Oklahoma, Auburn) stumble and give them a shot at the national title. But they had better not let their attention be diverted too much, or they could risk getting upset by Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles play in the underrated Conference USA. The middle and bottom teams in that conference are arguably on a par with the second-tier teams in the Pac-10. Cal surely has a talent edge here, but Southern Miss has a solid program and won't roll over in this non-conference clash. Southern Miss quarterback Dustin Almond won't have pro scouts beating down his door like his counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, but Almond is a winner and a good game manager who is also a threat to run the ball. I don't need him to win the game, but I really like his chances of keeping this game close.

PLAY: Southern Miss for 1 unit.

Michigan State at Hawaii (+6 1/2)

Last week, I fully expected Northwestern to go to Hawaii and win in a rout. Instead, Hawaii won, 49-41, and showed me a lot in the process. Hawaii actually played defense last week, which sounds funny since it gave up 41 points, but it was a better defensive effort than in most of Hawaii's games. Michigan State didn't play Northwestern this year, but I see both as similar teams - and so do the oddsmakers, as Hawaii was a six-point underdog last week, too. Hawaii should be able to pull off a similar upset against a Michigan State team that seemingly was heading for a bowl game until losing to Penn State two weeks ago, 37-13. So, this trip is the Spartans' bowl game, but I can't see them getting up for this game with nothing to play for and with all the distractions of visiting the islands.

PLAY: Hawaii for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). College season record: 26-21-1 for a net profit of 2.9 units.

Heisman Trophy up for grabs

Another interesting battle to watch Saturday is the race for the Heisman Trophy.

Sports books in Nevada aren't allowed to book action on anything that involves voting (which includes presidential elections and the Oscars, as well as other MVP awards), but some offshore books offer a glimpse into the top contenders.

Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinart has moved ahead of the pack after throwing four TD passes last week in a nationally televised rout of Notre Dame (similar to Carson Palmer's performance two years ago against the Irish). Along with being the leader of the No. 1 team in the nation, Leinart is the 1-5 favorite to win the Heisman, according to sportsbetting.com.

But what if USC falls to UCLA or Leinart has a poor outing even in victory, while someone steps up in the national spotlight of, say, the Big 12 or SEC title game? Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, the reigning Heisman winner - who is trying to become only the second two-time winner along with Ohio State running back Archie Griffin - is the 3-1 second choice and the most likely to bypass Leinart. White's teammate, running back Adrian Peterson, is a distant third choice at 12-1, but could steal a lot of votes if he outperforms White.

Texas running back Cedric Benson is 15-1, followed by Auburn's Jason Campbell at 20-1, Utah's Alex Smith and USC's Reggie Bush at 25-1, California's J.J. Arrington at 60-1, and Auburn's Carnell Williams and Cal's Rodgers at 75-1.