10/19/2005 11:00PM

Odds dictate Astros are the way to go


LAS VEGAS - The winner of the World Series will be a great story. Either the Houston Astros win their first title in franchise history, or the Chicago White Sox win for the first time since 1917.

The White Sox have home-field advantage by virtue of the American League having won the All-Star Game - a wacky rule - but the Sox deserve it anyway because they had the majors' best record.

Because of that, when Las Vegas sports books posted series odds late Wednesday and early Thursday, the Sox were between -120 and -130. An interesting behind-the-scenes note is that Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the top oddsmaking firm in the country, actually sent it out as pick-em, -110 each way, to its sports book clients.

"We gave the Astros a little more of a chance because of their great pitching staff," said LVSC oddsmaker Sean Van Patten. "Granted, the White Sox have great pitching, too, with complete games in the last four games of the ALCS, but they haven't used their bullpen at all and that could actually backfire on them.

"The Astros have Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt and they have to be given the edge, plus Clemens and Pettitte have a lot of big-game experience."

In Saturday's series opener, LVSC made the Sox and starting pitcher Jose Contreras a -125 favorite over the Astros and Roger Clemens. As of noon Pacific on Thursday, most sports books had it at -130. The total on Saturday's game is 7 runs. Van Patten said to expect most of the games to have a low total, especially with anticipated cold weather for the games in Chicago. He said the only matchup that might produce a higher total would be if Freddy Garcia (Sox) and Brandon Backe (Astros) meet in the fourth game in Houston.

Both teams have great pitching and play good defense, and are adept at manufacturing runs on offense. It should be a tight series and pick-em probably is the right price, so as long as the books are offering plus-money (+105 being the consensus around town), I will pick the Astros in seven games, meaning Oswalt could get the clincher on the road just like he did in St. Louis on Wednesday night.

In addition to Saturday's opening of the World Series, we also have a full slate of college football action. Here are my four plays:

Northwestern (+12) at Michigan St.

Northwestern is getting used to shootouts, and last week not only kept up with Purdue but upset the Boilermakers outright. This game should play out the same way, and getting double-digit points is a nice head-start. Northwestern's offense, led by quarterback Brett Basanez - who may not have the physical attributes of the highly touted quarterbacks, but is definitely a gamer - can move the ball on anyone, and the Spartans' defense isn't too, well, Spartan-like. Michigan State allows 280 passing yards per game, and Northwestern should surpass that. The Wildcats are averaging 313 yards per game through the air and another 216 yards per game on the ground. That's balance. The Spartans' offense should also have success, but I have to wonder how they're going to bounce back from giving away their game last week vs. Ohio State. Go with the team feeling good about itself.

PLAY: Northwestern for 1 unit.

Louisville at Cincinnati (+22)

This is another game where I'm going against a potentially unmotivated favorite. Louisville had such high hopes heading into this season but the Cardinals suffered their second loss last week vs. West Virginia in a grueling 46-44 triple-overtime battle. Now, the Cardinals have to travel to Cincy, a team there's no reason for them to get up for, and lay more than three touchdowns. Cincinnati's defense has been its strong suit. That doesn't look like the case as the Bearcats have allowed an average of 28 points per game, but that was inflated from early in the year when the offense and special teams turned the ball over a lot to give their opponents easy scores. The offense has been taking better care of the ball and should help this stay within the number.

PLAY: Cincinnati for 1 unit.

Vanderbilt (+8) at South Carolina

Both these teams started the season strong - but then they started SEC play, and they're in their usual place in the bottom half of the SEC East standings, ahead of only Kentucky. Despite losing three straight games, Vanderbilt (4-3) still has bowl aspirations and needs this game with a tough schedule the rest of the way. It's certainly a step down in class after recent losses to No. 6 LSU and No. 4 Georgia. The combo of Jay Culter and Erik Davis should be the difference for Vanderbilt, which is much better than the Vandy teams that were Steve Spurrier's whipping boy when he was at Florida (and this South Carolina team is a far cry from what he had back then).

PLAY: Vanderbilt for 1 unit.

Oregon (-9 1/2) at Arizona

I don't often lay more than a touchdown, but in this case it seems warranted. Oregon has won (and covered) its last three games since giving USC an early scare on Sept. 14. Oregon is 3-0 both straight up and against the spread on the road. Quarterback Kellen Clemens should torch the Arizona defense early and often, and the Wildcats just don't have the offensive firepower to keep pace.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). College season record: 11-12 for a net loss of 2.2 units.