12/29/2004 12:00AM

A New Year's party with cats and dogs

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LAS VEGAS - Rain, rain, go away, come again . . . after the new year.

It's just a drop in the ocean compared to the weather disasters experienced by people in other locales, but all day Tuesday and into Wednesday morning this city was dealing with a rain storm that closed roadways.

The measurable amount that fell Tuesday was just 1 1/2 inches, but the way the valley is laid out, all the water flows to the lowest areas and causes flash floods that often make the national news. The rain is expected to continue through the weekend and could dampen the city's huge New Year's Eve celebration, which also welcomes Las Vegas's centennial year.

Projections have called for upwards of 300,000 people to bring in the new year on the Strip, capped by a $500,000 fireworks display from the rooftops of 10 casinos, from the Excalibur to the Stratosphere. Officials for Fireworks by Grucci, which is coordinating the extravaganza, have said the show will go on if it rains, but that it will be canceled if winds exceed 10 mph.

Local TV stations will be broadcasting the festivities live, but there will be no national coverage like the last two years on Fox, which carried the celebration on the show "America's Party." This year's show was canceled because the network, fearful of increased FCC scrutiny, wanted to institute a five-minute delay, which would make for an anticlimactic countdown to the new year.

There is no official timetable, but the Strip, one of the busiest roadways anywhere and especially on weekend nights, will be gradually narrowed and then closed as the crowd grows during the night.

Anyone planning to party in Vegas on Friday night is advised to arrive at his destination early. Many hotels will only allow you to park there if you're a guest at the hotel, and some casinos - especially if the crowds are trying to get in out of the rain - will only allow hotel guests inside that night. People should also plan to stay late, since traffic in past years has been gridlocked past 3 a.m.

Football contest updates

A lot of money is up for grabs this weekend in the major football handicapping contests around town as the NFL plays all of its final 16 games of the year on Sunday. With a lot of playoff teams resting starters, it will be a tough field for the leaders of Vegas's three major contests to navigate. But it can't be much harder than last week's schedule was for the leaders.

* A contestant using the alias "Tiger Wilson" went 1-4 in the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest, yet still held onto first place with a record of 50-29-1 for 50.5 contest points (pushes count for a half-point). Two contestants, "Dallas Mike" and "Squarepants," moved within a half-game, with 50 points. Three more stalkers are another half-game back at 49.5, and another three are 1 1/2 games back at 49. Sheets with the leaders' picks, as well as consensus plays of all contestants, will be available at the Hilton on Friday afternoon.

* The leader in the Station Casinos' Gambler's Challenge, "4 Aces," went only 2-3 but held onto a half-game lead over "Kool Gent" with 47. "The Untouchables" are third with 46.5 points, and then there is a group of four with 46 points, including last week's co-leader, "Sdsoda + LV Moosh," who went 0-4-1 to fall 1 1/2 games back. These picks will be available late Saturday morning.

* In the Golden Nugget's Ultimate Football Challenge, leader "JRBuck" actually posted a winning record, 3-2, but lost his best bet, which is worth 2 points. "JRBuck" has 64 points heading into the final weekend and has seen his lead shrink to 2 points over "Detroit Handicapping Specialists" and 4 points over "El Loco IS." Their selections should be available by 6 p.m. Saturday.

* For those who want to avoid all the holiday traffic, the picks can also be found at jimfeist.com and clicking on the appropriate links on the left-hand side of the home page. The Hilton picks are usually up by Friday night, but the others aren't usually updated until late Saturday.

Friday: Liberty Bowl
Louisville (-12 1/2) vs. Boise St.

Stop the presses! I can't remember the last time I bet a game in any sport while laying double digits, but that's how much of a mismatch this game appears to be. These two teams had more televised games than ever before, and from everything I saw it looked as if Louisville was the best non-BCS conference team in the country (a Louisville-Utah matchup would have been ideal). The Cardinals' only loss came Oct. 14 at Miami-Fla., in a game the Cardinals should have won. They led by 24-7 at halftime and 31-21 entering the fourth quarter before star quarterback Stefan Lefors was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Miami-Fla. rallied for a 41-38 victory, but Louisville showed it could play with anyone. Boise St., despite an undefeated record, isn't at that level. Whereas Louisville blew out its opponents down the stretch, Boise St. repeatedly played down to its competition, especially on the road, which is usually a pretty good gauge of how teams will perform in bowl games at neutral sites. The physical matchups also point to Louisville. Boise St. is strong against the run, but Louisville will be attacking through the air with Lefors, who has an outstanding 74-percent completion rate to go with 18 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Louisville's defense should also do a good job containing the Broncos' high-scoring offense. I rarely find a game where I feel comfortable laying this many points instead of taking them, but I can't see this game going any other way.

PLAY: Louisville for 1 unit.

Bowl record: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1) through Tuesday's game. College season record: 31-23-1 (57 percent) for a net profit of 5.7 units.