11/13/2003 1:00AM

Gut says go with four underdogs


LAS VEGAS - When trying to narrow down my football selections for publication each week, it's easier to make a case for a favorite than for an underdog.

That makes sense, since it's easier to point out reasons the better team should win and cover the spread in the process, as opposed to trying to come up with reasons for why the supposedly inferior team will outperform the favorite.

After doing my writeups, however, I usually have more confidence with my underdogs, even if part of the reason I like them is based on a "gut feeling" that is hard to put into words. Last week was a perfect example. I liked Tennessee +12 1/2 over Miami even though everything appeared to show that Miami had the better team, Wisconsin +8 at Minnesota, and Oregon +1 1/2 vs. California. All three dogs came through for me.

Meanwhile, I also went with favored Wake Forest over North Carolina because it looked like such a mismatch even though Wake was being asked to lay 8 1/2 points. North Carolina won outright, and it wasn't even close. After the fact, I was wishing I had taken another dog instead.

This week, I was down to four favorites and four underdogs, and I'm going with the four dogs as my official plays. It was hard to pass on the favorites because they all seemed so logical, so I will list them here and see if I made the right decision: Ohio State -3 vs. Purdue, Kentucky -6 1/2 at Vanderbilt, Colorado State -14 vs. San Diego State, and New Mexico -4 vs. Air Force.

Mississippi St. (+24) vs. Tennessee

Tennessee came through for me last week when it knocked off Miami as a 12 1/2-point underdog, but I'm going against the Volunteers here. I'm not even going to try to make an argument about Mississippi State being able to move the ball on the Vols or being able to shut down their offense. This is a simply a play against the Vols in a classic letdown spot, coming off a huge upset and now playing one of the worst teams in their conference. In addition, Tennessee has been favored by double digits at home four times this season and has failed to cover every time: 24-6 over Fresno State as a 19-point favorite, 34-20 over Marshall as a 20 1/2-point favorite, 23-20 over South Carolina as a 15-point favorite, 23-6 over Duke as a 24-point favorite. The Vols seem to just do enough to win comfortably and I see the same thing happening here. Now, I can already hear some people out there saying "Don't ask a bad team to win for you." I think that's valid when the point spread is in single digits, but getting more than three touchdowns gives up a little more wiggle room.

PLAY: Mississippi State for 1 unit.

Cincinnati (+7) at TCU

Cincinnati beat Division I-AA Rhode Island by only 31-24 last week, but I think it's clear the Bearcats were looking ahead to this matchup. Cincinnati had covered its previous seven games as a road dog before falling short two weeks ago, 24-17, in overtime, at South Florida as a 3-point underdog. Earlier this year, the Bearcats won outright, 15-13, at West Virginia as a 7-point dog.

Obviously, coach Rick Minter knows how to get his team to perform on the road, and there's no reason to think the Bearcats won't be sky-high in facing the nation's No. 6 team in the BCS rankings. Cincinnati has a balanced offense, averaging 184 yards rushing and 204 passing per game, and is usually only slowed down by its own turnovers.

TCU is a good team, but is also getting it done with mirrors. Last week, Louisville gained 580 yards on the Horned Frogs as TCU remained undefeated with a 31-28 victory in a game in which Louisville's kicker missed three field goals, including one in the closing seconds off the crossbar. That was the fifth of TCU's nine victories that have been by exactly three points. I will gladly take a TCU win by a field goal here.

PLAY: Cincinnati for 1 unit.

N. Carolina St. (+14 1/2) at Fla. St.

Before seeing a line on this game, I thought Florida State might be a possible play coming off an embarrassing 26-10 loss to Clemson. Of course, I was estimating that the line would be around a touchdown, so when it came out in excess of two touchdowns, I felt the value was clearly on NC State. The Wolfpack has won five straight games after a slow start, led by quarterback Philip Rivers. Florida State is still the class of the ACC, but NC State has the Seminoles' number, having beaten them the past two years. The Wolfpack won't be intimidated and could put themselves back in the running for a BCS bowl with a victory here. With both teams being more successful in the passing game - and putting up less resistance vs. the pass on defense - this could be a shootout. North Carolina State should be able to keep up with FSU and stay within single digits.

PLAY: North Carolina St. for 1 unit.

Oregon (+2 1/2) at UCLA

If "on any given Sunday" is the definition for "parity," then there isn't parity in the Pac-10 . . . of course, that's only because Pac-10 football games are played on Saturday. Otherwise, you would have to say that the Pac-10 is the epitome of parity: Teams look great one week and awful the next, and these two teams fit the bill. Oregon has fairly impressive victories over Michigan, Stanford, and California, while inexplicably having lost to Utah, Arizona State, and Washington. UCLA has beaten two teams that have beaten Oregon - Arizona State and Washington - while losing to Stanford and barely avoiding a loss to Arizona, a team that Oregon crushed. It's hard to draw any conclusions from those results, so the only thing that matters is how these two teams match up on Saturday. Both teams have been platooning their quarterbacks and I prefer Oregon's tandem of Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife over UCLA's Matt Moore and Drew Olson. Oregon is coming into this game off a confidence-building comeback vs. Cal last week. The defense shut down Cal when it had to, and should have little problem containing UCLA this week.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-1 for a net profit of 1.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 27-24 for a net profit of 0.6 units.