09/24/2003 11:00PM

Home in on road teams


LAS VEGAS - Being a sports fan and a sports bettor are often at odds. It's kind of like separation of church and state: you know that's the way it's supposed to be, but sometimes it's hard to set aside your beliefs.

Last Saturday was a great day for me, but not for the reason most people might think.

As a sports bettor, my college bankroll plays went 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) as Kentucky and Stanford covered the spread while Georgia and Arizona St. came up short. Sadly, that has been my second-best college betting day of the young season as my record stands at 7-10 for a net loss of four units.

But that's not why I was happy at the end of the day.

What made my day was that my alma mater, Northern Illinois, having already pulled one of the biggest upsets of the season with a 20-13 overtime win against Maryland on Aug. 28, went into Tuscaloosa, Ala., and shocked Alabama 19-16. That's just not supposed to happen. Alabama is one of the most successful programs in the country while NIU has never even been ranked in the Top 25.

Until now. With that win, the Huskies have since been voted No. 20 in the AP writers' poll and No. 22 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.

The first thing people ask me is, "Did you bet on NIU?" The answer is an unabashed "No." I then have to explain that I learned long ago to bet with my head and not my heart. Thank my lucky stars for that, seeing that I'm also a diehard Cubs fan. Don't even get me started on how they're doing.

Root, root, root for the home team . . . but don't bet them unless you're completely sure you're being objective in your handicapping.

Money may indeed buy happiness, but if your favorite team wins, you're going to be in a great mood anyway. If they lose, why make a bad day worse by losing money, too?

Northern Illinois is favored by 6 1/2 over Iowa St. on Saturday. I'll be cheering and not worrying about if they cover the spread. Instead, I'm going with four road teams that are facing teams that aren't as good as their records indicate.

Missouri (-10) at Kansas

Perennial Big 12 doormat Kansas is a surprising 3-1 this season (2-1 against the spread after a non-board game vs. Division I-AA Jacksonville last week), but now the Jayhawks head into the conference season and will have a much harder time. Missouri is led by quarterback Brad Smith, who is one of the best all-around players in the country. He can beat you with his arm or legs. He has completed 71 percent of his passes and has no interceptions to go with seven touchdowns. He has also run for 354 yards, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, and another two TDs. Last year, Kansas didn't have an answer for Smith in a 36-12 loss to Missouri, and I don't see that changing. Kansas is certainly heading in the right direction, but this is just too much of a step up in class.

PLAY: Missouri for 1 unit.

Cincinnati (+7) at Miami-Ohio

The air will be filled with footballs in this game as Cincinnati quarterback Gino Guidugli takes on Miami's Ben Roethlisberger, especially with both teams' defenses being vulnerable to the pass. I really think Cincinnati got caught looking ahead to this game in its 30-24 overtime win over Temple. Coach Rick Minter will have the Bearcats ready this week. Cincinnati has been a strong road underdog over the past two-plus seasons, going 6-1 against the spread, including a 15-13 straight-up win at West Virginia as a 7-point dog two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Miami-Ohio has been 2-5 as a home favorite the past two seasons. Miami-Ohio is 2-1 and coming off a win at Colorado St., which doesn't appear as strong as in years past. Roethlisberger will get his yards, but Guidugli does whatever it takes and will keep his team close.

PLAY: Cincinnati for 1 unit.

Utah (+6 1/2) at Colorado St.

Colorado St. is 2-2, and that's mostly because quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt carried the team to a narrow 23-21 win over California (which Utah also beat 31-24) and another win over Division I-AA Weber St. In two losses, to Colorado and the aforementioned Miami-Ohio, Van Pelt has had to run for his life - and the Utah defense should also be able to apply pressure on Saturday. Utah is led by tailback Brandon Warfield, who has rushed for eight touchdowns already this season. The Utes should be able to control the clock and pull the outright upset, or hopefully only lose by a field goal.

PLAY: Utah for 1 unit.

TCU (-15) at Arizona

This pick is pretty much a case of Arizona being as bad as it has looked. I gladly laid the points with Oregon -11 1/2 against the Wildcats two weeks ago (and won easily 48-10) and was kicking myself last week when passing on Purdue -24 (the Boilermakers blew out the Wildcats 59-7). Arizona has been a double-digit underdog in all three games since beating the even more pitiful Texas-El Paso in the season opener, but Arizona has still lost by an average of 28.3 points against the spread. Arizona hasn't been close with those generous point-spread head starts. Arizona is in disarray on both sides of the ball, and the players and fans have turned on coach John Mackovic, so no credit should be given to them for home-field advantage. The oddsmakers can't adjust quickly enough on this team.

PLAY: TCU for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

Season record: 7-10 for a net loss of 4 units.