09/21/2005 11:00PM

Imagine USC as a 28-point underdog


LAS VEGAS - USC is a great college team. No doubt about it.

The Trojans are the two-time defending champs - okay, they are the two-time defending Associated Press champs, since they didn't get to play in the BCS title game two years ago - and the MGM Mirage properties have them as overwhelming 1-2 favorites to win the Rose Bowl, this year's BCS title game, after being available at 7-5 before the season started.

USC has annihilated its first two opponents this year, 63-17 over Hawaii as 35-point favorites and 70-17 over Arkansas as 31-point favorites. This week, the Trojans are 21-point favorites over Oregon despite having to play a Pac-10 rival on the road.

The Trojans are being compared to a pro team, and I'm sure you've heard people say that they could beat the 49ers or the Cardinals.

But don't believe it.

Ken White, the head oddsmaker and current co-owner of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, said the Trojans don't have the overall talent or depth to compete with any pro team.

"The worst NFL teams have got to be 28-point favorites over the top college team, even USC," White said. "They could name their score. It's professionals against college kids, and that's such a big difference. Carson Palmer was a great college player, but he had to sit on the bench right away with the Bengals. It's a big step up to the pros. Last year, Ben Roethlisberger kind of broke the mold, but before him, rookie quarterbacks were 28 percent against the spread over a long sample of games.

"Matt Leinart, as good as he is, would basically be a rookie quarterback going against the pros, and Leinart isn't surrounded by all NFL-quality players."

Michael "Roxy" Roxborough, who founded LVSC and was the nation's top oddsmakers from 1982 to 1999, said these comparisons are nothing new.

"This comes up from time to time," Roxy said, "but pro teams by their very nature are a collection of college all-stars. The 49ers, or whoever you think is the worst team in the NFL, would wax any college team if they really had to win and were trying the whole game."

Both White and Roxborough referenced the old annual exhibition game in Chicago from 1934-1976 between the defending NFL champs and a team of college all-stars. In the first 14 games in the 1930's and 40's, the NFL went 7-5-2. But as pro teams became more, well, professional in their training, the NFL teams started to dominate, and by the time the series ended (with a rain-shortened 24-0 victory by the Steelers in 1976), the NFL teams were 31-9-2 with only one loss in the final 18 games.

And this was with all the best college players, not just one team.

But enough comparing college teams to the pros, especially mythical matchups that won't take place to prove either side's point. Let's try to compare college teams to college teams and pick some winners this Saturday.

Michigan at Wisconsin (+3)

Writers are told to "write what you know," and for handicappers it's the same: Bet what you know. I'm 2-0 with Wisconsin so far this year, and I will continue to ride the Badgers until I lose. This week, the Badgers open the Big 10 season at home against Michigan. I know that Michigan has won 23 straight Big 10 openers and that Wisconsin hasn't beaten Michigan since 1994, but both streaks could end here. After allowing six touchdowns to Bowling Green in the season opener, Wisconsin hasn't allowed a TD in the past two games and is playing much better. Michigan's offense hasn't exactly been racking up points, except against Eastern Michigan last week. The Badgers' strength is their running game, with Brian Calhoun averaging 157 yards per game, but if the Wolverines give him too much attention, I think quarterback John Stocco and receiver Jonathan Orr can hook up for another score. Wisconsin looks like a live home dog.

PLAY: Wisconsin for 1 unit.

North Carolina (+10) at N.C. State

Last week, I cashed with Wisconsin -3 at North Carolina as the Badgers won 14-5, but I liked enough of what I saw with the Tar Heels to back them here as a double-digit underdog against their biggest (football) rival in their ACC opener. The defense fared very well vs. what I consider to be a very potent offense in Wisconsin. The Tar Heels should be able to stay close in what should be another low-scoring affair. Although it didn't get in the end zone last week, North Carolina's offense was able to move the ball on Wisconsin and should do enough to at least get the cover and be in position for the outright upset.

PLAY: North Carolina for 1 unit.

Georgia Tech (+11 1/2) at Va. Tech

This is looking like a round-robin tournament with my selections, as Georgia Tech has beaten North Carolina this year and Virginia Tech has defeated N.C. State. So, since I like the Tar Heels in the above game, it's no surprise I fancy the Yellow Jackets here. These teams are actually pretty similar, with very good defenses and extremely athletic quarterbacks in Georgia Tech's Reggie Ball and Virginia Tech's Marcus Vick. That's assuming, of course, that Ball is able to play after missing last week's win over Connecticut with viral meningitis. Ball has been back to practice, and as of Thursday it looked like he would be able to play most, if not all, of the game on Saturday. But this game will be decided by the defenses, and Georgia Tech leads the nation with 10 interceptions and a +3 turnover differential per game, and should pose problems for Vick. I just don't see two scores separating these two teams and will gladly take the points.

PLAY: Georgia Tech 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: 6-3 for a net profit of 2.7 units.