11/25/2004 12:00AM

Look at road dogs in rivalry games


LAS VEGAS - Last week was billed as "Rivalry Saturday" in college football, but there's no shortage of rivalry games this week.

A lot of people point to home-field advantage in these kind of matchups, but I'm going to go with four road underdogs.

Georgia Tech (+15 1/2) at Georgia

Georgia was my pick to win the BCS title, so the Bulldogs certainly didn't live up to my (or a lot of people's) expectations. The Bulldogs have played down to their competition all year long, and that can certainly happen again Saturday, even in this rivalry game. The Georgia offense hasn't been nearly as explosive as most people expected, and now it faces the nation's No. 18 defense in Georgia Tech, which allows only 308 yards per game and 19 points. Tech's offense isn't any great shakes either, but quarterback Reggie Ball is athletic enough to avoid the Georgia pass rush and make plays downfield to freshman phenom Calvin Johnson. They don't have to connect every time, but it shouldn't take much to stay within two touchdowns in a game that should be hard-fought to the finish.

PLAY: Georgia for 1 unit.

Missouri (+4 1/2) at Iowa St.

Iowa St. can earn a spot in the Big 12 title game (vs. Oklahoma) with a victory Saturday, but this will not be a walkover. The Cyclones have had a great season, but their lead in the Big 12 North is more due to the rest of that division being way down this year - primarily perennial powers Nebraska and Colorado. Also, the other best teams in the Big 12 - Texas A&M and Texas Tech - are stuck in the South with Oklahoma. Missouri matches up very well with ISU, though the Tigers have been a disappointment at 4-6. Quarterback Brad Smith is a threat with his legs as much as his arm, and a lot of his problems this year have resulting from being too much of a throwing quarterback. Look for him to run wild in this game. The Missouri defense has actually played adequately this year, and the pass defense (allowing only 143 yards per game through the air) should be able to contain a less-than-spectacular Iowa St. offense.

PLAY: Missouri for 1 unit.

Virginia (+4) at Virginia Tech

Both of these teams are still shooting for the ACC title, so there's no shortage of motivation on each side. Both teams also have scored 30 points on Georgia Tech, so I certainly respect their offenses. Nevertheless, I do see a difference, and prefer the Cavaliers. Alvin Pearman and Wali Lundy share the running load, and quarterback Marques Hagans keeps improving, completing more than 63 percent of his passes. As in years past, VaTech gets a lot of offense from special teams and the defense setting up scores. Tech will have more problems this week, as Virginia allows just over 100 yards rushing per game and has a strong pass rush to force Tech QB Bryan Randall into mistakes. In addition, Virginia takes care of the ball - no turnovers and no sacks allowed against Georgia Tech - and if the Cavs can do the same on Saturday, they should be able to control the ball and the clock to get the minor upset.

PLAY: Virginia for 1 unit.

Notre Dame (+23) at Southern Cal

Ever feel like you're stepping in front of a train? Well, I do with this pick against the juggernaut USC squad, but rivalry games are all about pride, and even though this is a manufactured rivalry (certainly no geographic connection), it's a late-season game that often has an impact on the national title race, as well as Heisman voting (see the candidacy of Carson Palmer). Notre Dame players and fans don't like the fact that their program is down while USC is flying high, and they will do everything in their power to play spoiler. The question, obviously, is whether the Irish have enough talent. For my purposes, I just care that they have enough talent and pride to stay within three touchdowns. And some things show me they can. The Irish play one of the toughest schedules in the nation, and despite their 6-4 mark, I believe if they played a Pac-10 schedule, they'd be in the running for the Rose Bowl. They've played two games against the Pac-10, a 23-15 win over Stanford (which USC only beat by 3 points, 31-28) and a 35-3 victory over Washington (which USC beat by a similar score, 38-0). Those scores don't look like they should lead to this big of a point spread. Sure, USC has blown out other teams and Notre Dame has stubbed its toe against lesser competition, but I have to give the Irish the benefit of the doubt and expect their best effort here. The keys will be for Notre Dame to take care of the ball with the rushing attack of Darius Walker and allow quarterback Brady Quinn to make plays. The defense should contain the USC ground attack and will need to force quarterback Matt Leinart into mistakes. The last key is to win the battle on special teams and not allow USC's Reggie Bush any big returns. That's a lot of "ifs," but if those things happen, the Irish might not only cover, but dare I utter the word "upset"? Wake up the echoes!

PLAY: Notre Dame for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-1-1 for a net profit of 0.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

College season record: 24-19-1 for a net profit of 3.1 units.