08/27/2003 11:00PM

NCAA football kicks off with a bang

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LAS VEGAS - In light of the injuries to star quarterbacks Michael Vick and Chad Pennington in preseason games this month, a topical debate has been whether NFL players need so many practice games. Most teams play four, with the participants in the American Bowl and the Hall of Fame Game playing five apiece.

We've all heard the pros: players need to get in shape; offensive and defensive units need to get in sync; rookies and free agents need to be evaluated in game conditions, yada, yada, yada. It's all a con. The coaches have a pretty good idea from the two-a-day practices about who will make the final 53-man roster, and teams routinely scrimmage against other teams to simulate game situations.

But the biggest argument against NFL exhibition games can be found in Saturday's college football schedule. In all, 21 of the Top 25 teams in the ESPN/USA Today College Coaches Poll will be in action this weekend (including Miami-Fla. and Maryland on Thursday and Virginia Tech and Texas on Sunday). And they aren't all playing Little Sisters of the Poor A&I.

There are more marquee matchups for NCAA games in the month of August than I can remember. Seriously, a couple of teams are going to have their national title hopes ruined before Labor Day. There is defending national champion and No. 2 ranked Ohio St. taking on No. 19 Washington, plus No. 6 Auburn facing No. 8 Southern Cal. And those are just the non-conference matchups. At least the teams that lose those will still be 0-0 in their conference standings. How about Oklahoma St.-Nebraska, Clemson-Georgia, Florida St.-North Carolina? The losers of those games will have even bigger holes to climb out of.

If these college players can be thrown into meaningful games without an exhibition schedule, then why can't the professionals give it the ole college try?

But we all know that NFL owners rake in extra money on the preseason games since they force season-ticket holders to buy the exhibitions as part of the whole package and they're not likely to give them up without a fight.

So, we'll get off the soapbox and instead discuss something that is relevant: Saturday's attractive college schedule. With so many meaningful games on the board, there's no reason to tip-toe into the betting pools. We're diving right in.

Georgia at Clemson (+2 1/2)

Georgia was one of the nation's top teams last season and worthy of a BCS bowl as SEC champion. If that Georgia team were playing here, it would be worthy of being favored, however, the Bulldogs return only three starters on offense (and none in the offensive line) and will be hard-pressed to break from the gate strongly. Georgia coach Mark Richt continues to use the platoon system at quarterback, with David Greene and D.J. Shockley and, while it's worked in the past, it could be detrimental to his team's development. Clemson turned around its season last year with the switch to quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who will only get better. Clemson returns seven players on offense and five on defense, including a lot of backups who logged quality minutes last year. I'll take the home dog.

PLAY: Clemson for 1 unit.

Oklahoma St. (+7 1/2) at Nebraska

Preseason football polls aren't to be taken as gospel, but Oklahoma St. is ranked No. 24 in the nation and Nebraska is unranked, yet Nebraska opened as an 8 1/2-point favorite. Something doesn't add up. Early bettors have backed Oklahoma St. and I'm getting on the bandwagon. The Cowboys upset both Nebraska and Oklahoma last year, and the combo of quarterback Josh Fields and receiver Rashaun Woods is nearly unstoppable. Nebraska had its worst season in 41 years and brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators. The Huskers are expected to try passing more, which is not the strength of quarterback Jamaal Lord, and if so, they also would fail to take advantage of one of OSU's weaknesses. Oklahoma St. is certainly capable of pulling the outright upset against the struggling Nebraska program, or at least staying within a touchdown.

PLAY: Oklahoma St. for 1 unit.

Troy St. at Kansas St. (-38)

My last two plays are basically going with teams that won last weekend and are now playing teams that are playing in their season openers. The Kansas St. offense was great against California last week in the Wildcats' 42-28 victory, but coach Bill Snyder chose to concentrate on his disappointment in the defense's performance. Expect a better effort this week on the defensive side of the ball - especially against a Troy St. team that returns only five offensive starters and is putting in a new offense - while quarterback Ell Roberson and running back Darren Sproles should run wild. The only fear is if Snyder benches his starters by halftime.

PLAY: Kansas St. for 1 unit.

San Jose St. (+25) vs. Florida

Yes, San Jose St. is visiting "The Swamp," but they're also coming off a pretty good performance in a 29-0 victory over Grambling last Saturday. The whitewashing could have been more dominating if not for a few turnovers, a problem that plagued San Jose St. last season. Granted, Grambling is no Florida, so the Spartans will have their hands full. But that's an awful lot of points for the Gators to be laying vs. a team that's already played, especially when Florida is replacing Rex Grossman at quarterback with Ingle Martin (seven career completions) and a defense that only returns three starters. Add to all that the fact that the Gators must be tempted to look ahead to next week's game at Miami-Fla. and it's not a stretch to see them coming out flat. Florida's talent should prevail, but we have to stay with three touchdowns.

PLAY: San Jose St. for 1 unit.