12/09/2004 12:00AM

More than one way to pick the bowls

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LAS VEGAS - By noon on Saturday, college football fans will be going through some major withdrawals.

For the first time in four months, there won't be college football games played on Saturday. Oh, there are the Division I-AA and Division II playoffs on the ESPN networks, if you count those - which I don't, since they're not on the betting boards here in Vegas.

The first major college bowl game isn't until next Tuesday, and then we'll go through the same thing next week with no college football until the following Tuesday, Dec. 21. After that, we'll have football every day as the NFL will fill the void on the only days without bowl games - Dec. 25-26 and Jan. 2 - in the ensuing two weeks.

For now, football handicappers are left to pore over all the relevant statistics and scores from the season to try to determine the point-spread winners in the 28 bowl games. It's a challenging exercise, because many factors make it different from the regular season.

To name a few:

* Many of the teams, especially in the later marquee matchups, will not have played in more than a month. During the regular season, a two-week gap is generally the most a team has to deal with to shake off the rust.

* Along those lines, some coaches - just like trainers in horse racing - have proven better at preparing their teams off a layoff. A lot of that comes with experience, as some coaches and teams from the top programs are in bowls year after year.

* The last few months, a lot of the games have been conference clashes where a handicapper can look at a number of common opponents. But in the bowls, you often get teams with very few common opponents, so the comparisons can be a lot tougher. This can lead to oddsmakers and other bettors giving too much credit to teams from BCS conferences when the teams' overall strength of schedule might not be that far off. (This was a main point I made last week in taking Southern Miss +24 vs. California.)

* But the biggest factor that most handicappers point to during bowl season is the "letdown" vs. "motivated" teams. The conventional wisdom seems to be that if a team had higher expectations on the season or felt it deserved a better bowl, that team might suffer a letdown and not bring its A-game. But I think that can work both ways. Yes, sometimes a team won't seem to give a hoot if it's playing in a game that is beneath it (at least in the players' minds), but often those teams do put forth an inspired effort because it feels it has something to prove. As for the "motivated" teams, they are often overachievers who everyone assumes will keep improving but actually fall on their faces when stepping up in class.

So, it's often a guessing game with both of those types of teams. Assumptions about a team's mind-set can be costly. But if you're looking to find out if a team is motivated or due for a letdown, it pays to do research. It's not enough to watch "SportsCenter" or other national shows where coaches and players are more likely to put on the best face. A better source is local news coverage from writers who have covered the teams all year, and a good place to start is a website named Sportspage.com (click the "Regions" link on the left-hand side to find the local newspapers).

All this being said, I think it's important to factor all of the above into a final analysis of who to play, but when I sit down to handicap the bowl games I try to look at the two teams and how they match up without any of that other stuff. Kind of an "if the game were played in a vacuum" approach.

I'd like to think that every team is going to come with its top effort, and during the course of the bowl season, I think there's a lot more guesswork in trying to predict those other intangibles than in evaluating the players; what they've accomplished this year; and how they're likely to fare against their bowl opponent.

Another thing that bears mentioning is that I strongly advise not to bet on every bowl game just because they're on TV and you crave action. With that in mind, I debated even making a play on Tuesday's New Orleans Bowl, but in the end I felt strongly enough to pull the trigger.

Southern Miss (-5 1/2) vs. North Texas
New Orleans Bowl, Dec. 14

North Texas, as the Sun Belt champion, is playing in this bowl for the fourth straight year - it's as much the Mean Green's bowl as the Hawaii Bowl is Hawaii's and the Humanitarian Bowl was Boise St.'s before this season. North Texas was 7-0 both straight up and against the spread in the Sun Belt, but was 0-4 out of conference. That's a really bad sign. Southern Miss plays in a tougher conference and is 2-1 against the spread in nonconference games, including a win over Nebraska - which doesn't look as impressive as it did back in September, but it is better than anything North Texas did - and the aforementioned point-spread cover last week vs. Cal. The Golden Eagles are taking pride in that performance, which pretty much knocked Cal out of the Rose Bowl. They should keep that momentum with quarterback Dustin Almond continuing his solid play of late (307 yards passing, plus a passing and rushing touchdown, vs. Cal). Likewise, the Southern Miss defense should have an easier time after facing one of the nation's most potent offenses. I feel comfortable laying up to a touchdown in this matchup.

PLAY: Southern Miss for 1 unit.

College regular-season record: 28-21-1 (57 percent) for a net profit of 4.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).