12/30/2004 12:00AM

It's a three-dog New Year's Day


LAS VEGAS - Friday night, some race and sports fans were bound to celebrate the new year quietly at home. Others were sure to go out and party like it's 1999.

No matter how they spent the night before, come Saturday morning, most race and sports fans will be rolling out of bed to a day of college football or playing the ponies, even if it means using toothpicks to hold their eyelids open. Watching football on New Year's Day is as honored an American tradition as making New Year's resolutions and breaking them - often before the day is over.

The action starts painfully early here in Vegas. Football fans will be seeing double at 8 a.m. as the Outback Bowl and Cotton Bowl kick off. I won't be in action on either of those games because I try to keep my annual New Year's resolution and not be swayed into playing games just because they're on TV.

I have been pretty selective in my bowl plays the past few weeks. I went 1-1 on Wednesday with a win on Colorado -3 vs. UTEP (a lucky 33-28 winner) and a loss on Oklahoma State -3 1/2 vs. Ohio State (an ugly 33-7 loser). That puts bankroll plays in the print editions of Daily Racing Form at 4-3 through the first 12 games on the bowl schedule.

I make selections on all of the bowl games at the Daily Racing Form website - at drf.com/football/2004/picks.html - and into Wednesday night I was 7-4 (64 percent) overall, and that doesn't include a win on Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl, which would make my overall bowl record 8-4 (67 percent). Of course, that's really nothing to brag about because that means selections I haven't specified as bankroll plays are 4-1, a much better record than my bankroll plays.

I'm on three underdogs Saturday in what hopefully is the start of a profitable new year.

Gator Bowl
West Virginia (+9) vs. Florida St.

Both teams had high hopes and were disappointed in their 8-3 campaigns, especially the way they ended. West Virginia lost its final two games (and its last four against the spread) and Florida State lost two of its last four games (and was 0-4-1 against the spread in its last five games). Both teams are outstanding at stopping the run, but it's likely that WVU's rushing attack, averaging 254 yards per game, will break through, with running back Kay-Jay Harris and quarterback Rasheed Wallace both capable of big plays. The Seminoles haven't been nearly as explosive as in years past, especially when facing quality defenses, and I think they come up short here. I also like that WVU blew out Syracuse, 27-6, while FSU barely beat the Orangemen, and WVU beat Maryland, 19-16, while Maryland knocked off FSU, 20-17. Sometimes you have to handicap games on "feel," and this doesn't feel like the spread should be more than a touchdown. If anything, it should be around pick-em, or maybe FSU -3 if you give the Seminoles a home-field advantage with the game in their home state.

PLAY: West Virginia for 1 unit.

Capital One Bowl
Iowa (+6 1/2) vs. LSU

LSU lost a lot of players from its national title team of a year ago, and coach Nick Saban was still able to put together a solid season at 9-2. But it's even more impressive what Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has done to keep his program playing at the top level. It seems every year the Hawkeyes are thought to be in a rebuilding year and they continue to excel. This year, they have overcome injuries to their top four running backs yet still won nine games. Sam Brownlee is the team's leading rusher with 214 yards, but quarterback Drew Tate (62 percent completion rate, 2,499 yards, 18 touchdowns) is the key. Both teams have outstanding defenses (LSU is third in the nation in average yards allowed per game, Iowa is 10th), so this should be a grind-it-out battle. The Hawkeyes have excelled in close games and have won seven straight since their loss to Michigan that cost them a trip to the Rose Bowl. I also can't help but think LSU might be less than fully prepared for this game with all the distractions of Saban leaving for the NFL after this game.

PLAY: Iowa for 1 unit.

Fiesta Bowl
Pittsburgh (+15 1/2) vs. Utah

This is my second straight game going against a lame-duck coach, as Utah's Urban Meyer is leaving after this game to take over the Florida program. But Pitt coach Walt Harris is also leaving, for Stanford. Utah has had a banner season and was awarded with the first BCS bowl for a non-BCS conference school, but Pitt has a chance to stay with the Utes behind the improved play of quarterback Tyler Palko, who has averaged 320 yards passing in the Panthers' last five games, with 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions down the stretch. In addition to Meyer having one foot out the door, Utah's offense is preparing for this game without offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, who has taken the job at UNLV. Here's another intangible: Pitt's players have been hearing for weeks that they don't belong in a BCS game with their 8-3 record in a watered-down Big East conference, and that has to be a great motivator to try and prove the critics wrong. I think more than two touchdowns is just too many points to pass up at this level of competition.

PLAY: Pittsburgh for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 4-3 for a net profit of 0.7 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) through Wednesday's games. College season record: 32-24-1 (57 percent) for a net profit of 5.6 units.