09/09/2002 11:00PM

NFL openers a bonanza for bookmakers

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LAS VEGAS - After an NFL preseason and early college football campaign in which bettors were winning games left and right, the bookmakers turned the tables this past weekend.

Bet takers in Las Vegas and offshore scored a resounding victory as bettors were on the wrong side of a lot of games, which kills parlay cards early and often.

The bloodbath began with last Thursday night's NFL opener as bettors backed the 49ers from the opening line of -2 1/2 to -4 and even 4 1/2 at some books. Only the earliest of bettors cashed on the 49ers as they won 16-13. Bettors were already having a losing weekend, but the capper was the Sunday night and Monday night games. The Cowboys opened as a 3-point favorite last spring and were -9 1/2 by kickoff Sunday night, only to lose outright, 19-10, to the expansion Texans. Finally, on Monday night, the public backed the Steelers from a 1-point favorite to -2 1/2 against the Patriots, who easily won, 30-14, to add to the bookmakers' winnings.

It wasn't all bad news for bettors last weekend. Some of the sharp players did okay for themselves Saturday as they caught middles or sides in five college games: East Carolina-Wake Forest, Iowa-Miami (Ohio), Michigan-Western Michigan, Utah State-Nebraska, and Tennessee-Middle Tennessee State. The professional bettors also cashed in on South Florida, Central Michigan, Troy State, Alabama, and Kentucky.

But the general public, or the "squares," didn't fare as well. The Michigan State vs. Rice game was the most obvious example. The Spartans opened as 23 1/2-point favorites and were bet all the way up to -31 and even -32 at some books. Michigan State won, but only by 27-10. Stanford, Illinois, Purdue, Florida, South Carolina, and Colorado State were also teams that saw late one-sided action by the tourists, who left a lot of their money in town.

But even though the college games were good for the books, the books really made a killing in the NFL. In week 1, favorites (which the public tends to back) went 5-11 against the spread. Road favorites were exceptionally inept, going 1-6 against the spread. The lone road fave to cover was the Jets, who needed a kickoff return for a touchdown in overtime to cover the number in a 37-31 victory at Buffalo.

Home teams were 10-6 against the spread, including 6-1 as home dogs. Favorites won only nine of the 16 NFL games straight up over the weekend, with four of those winners not covering the spread (49ers, Bears, Packers, Colts).

Usually, the public likes to bet the over, so one would think the bettors fared well because 12 of the 16 games went over their totals. However, the bettors were obviously following the adage that the "defense is ahead of the offense early in the season," because of the 13 games that had line movement in the totals, nine of them saw bettors backing the under. Seven of those nine went over.

Tracking the team trends

The underdog in the Clemson-Georgia Tech series has covered the spread 13 straight times and 20 of the last 25, but it's hard to decide who to bet this Saturday. The game is pick-em!

The dog is also 14-2-1 in the last 17 meetings between Michigan and Notre Dame. The Irish are +3 1/2 this Saturday at home.

Miami (Fla.) has covered five of its last six meetings with Temple despite the fact the point spread has averaged 27 points. The No. 1-ranked Hurricanes are asked to cover 38 points this Saturday.

The Packers travel to New Orleans this Sunday as 2 1/ 2-point favorites over the Saints. The Pack is 5-13 against the spread in their last 18 games on artificial turf, including 0-3 last season.

Bankrolls off to bad start

I generally like to be a contrarian in my handicapping and don't like to end up on the same side as the general public, so usually if the public has a bad weekend that means that I did pretty well. But that wasn't the case as I went 3-5 with my week 1 NFL picks (2-3 on sides and 1-2 on totals). Fortunately, I won my 2-unit best bet on the Chiefs +2 1/2. My other spread winner was the Falcons, while I lost on the Ravens, Bengals, and Colts (a 3-point winner as a 3 1/2-point favorite). I cashed the under in the Ravens-Bengals game, but lost the Chiefs-Browns under and the Bengals-Chargers under 37 1/2. Overall, the NFL bankroll is at -1.5 units (+4 units on my winners and -5.5 units on my five losers) based on laying 1.1 units for every 1 unit I'm trying to win.

It was even worse in the colleges, as I lost a 2-unit play on Colorado State +7 vs. UCLA (instead of running out the clock after recovering a late onside kick, the Bruins ran in another TD to cover the 7-point spread, 30-19) and 1-unit wagers on West Virginia and Michigan State. Overall for the college season, I'm a woeful 1-6 against the spread with a net loss of 6.7 units.

It's back to the betting board.

Marshall at Virginia Tech (-11 1/2)

I will try to get back on the winning track as Marshall visits Blacksburg, Va., in a nationally televised game it needs in order to get an outside chance at BCS consideration and for QB Bryon Leftwich's Heisman campaign. This game has been bet from the opening number of 12 1/2 down to 11 1/2. Part of the reason for that is Virginia Tech will be without starting QB Grant Noel (left knee surgery). Backup Bryan Randall, however, played all but two series in Tech's 26-8 win over LSU, and besides, the Hokies' strength is the RB tandem of Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, who should help keep the ball out of Leftwich's hands. The Tech defense is stronger than Marshall's, and the Hokies also have the edge on special teams. In addition, Marshall has been a poor road dog, failing to cover five straight times since 1999. Blacksburg isn't a likely place to see that streak end, especially as the Hokies are also seeking national respect and will want to capitalize on its impressive victory over LSU with another convincing win over a ranked team.

Play: Virginia Tech for 1 unit.