11/17/2005 12:00AM

Rivalry Saturday? Just another day


LAS VEGAS - The Saturday before Thanksgiving is generally regarded as "Rivalry Saturday," but I'm not buying the hype or feeling the hate.

There are some nice regional matchups this Saturday with Ohio St.-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Clemson-South Carolina, Minnesota-Iowa, Washington-Washington St., Oregon-Oregon St., California-Stanford, Virginia-Virginia-Tech, and BYU-Utah, but it's really hard to get fully behind Rivalry Saturday when Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Texas-Texas A&M, Arizona-Arizona St., Florida-Florida St., Oklahoma-Oklahoma St., and Georgia-Georgia Tech are all played over the Thanksgiving weekend, and USC-UCLA and Army-Navy don't happen for another two weeks.

I also don't get what all the fuss is about, especially when I see these teams hoisting some of the goofy trophies that go to the winners of these annual matchups: victory bells, old oaken barrels and buckets, wagon wheels, keg of nails. I mean, what's the deal with the Minnesota-Iowa winner getting Floyd of Rosedale, a pig trophy? It's not as cool as Paul Bunyan's Axe, which goes to the Minnesota-Wisconsin winner each year.

Of course, maybe my indifference has to do with the fact that I'm in a desert outpost where UNLV lost to its biggest rival, Nevada, earlier this year, causing the locals here much grief. Or maybe it's because I didn't go to a "major" university like those involved in these storied rivalries - my alma mater, Northern Illinois, did defeat Toledo on Wednesday night, but that largely one-sided series could hardly be called a "rivalry."

So, when it comes down to it, I'm looking at this Saturday's college football card as if it were any other Saturday, though I've fallen on a few rivalry games by default.

Vanderbilt (+12) at Tennessee

Vanderbilt came through for me two weeks ago when the Commodores covered and nearly upset Florida before falling in overtime. The Commodores, led by quarterback Jay Cutler, are able to score with anyone - it's their defense that is to blame for their six straight losses. However, Tennessee has been very inconsistent on offense as neither Rick Clausen or Eric Ainge has stepped up to claim the No. 1 quarterback job. Overall, Tennessee is way down from recent years - in fact, last week the Vols barely beat Memphis 20-16 even though the Tigers were without their star player, DeAngelo Williams - and I'm still getting nearly two touchdowns in what should be a back-and-forth shootout. Add in the facts that Tennessee is 0-5 against the spread as a favorite this year and that they've only beaten one team by more than a dozen points all season, and this seems like a gift. Vandy can either be covering the whole way or sneak in the back door.

PLAY: Vanderbilt for 2 units.

Alabama (+7) at Auburn

If I had just stuck with the SEC last week, I would have shown a profit, so I'll stay there with this pick (and the next). Last week, I won by going against Alabama vs. LSU and with Auburn vs. Georgia, but I'm flipping this week in this rivalry matchup. This should be a hard-fought defensive battle with points at a premium - and Alabama having the better defense - and I can't pass up the points as the Crimson Tide should feel they have something to prove after seeing their dream of a perfect season end. The historical trends are in the Tide's favor, too, as the underdog has covered the last five games in this series and the visitor has covered eight of the last 10. It's not like Bama won't have any fans there, so home-field advantage is really in name only.

PLAY: Alabama for 1 unit.

LSU at Mississippi (+17)

Mississippi doesn't bring much on the offensive side of the ball, but the Rebels' defense usually keeps them in games - the aforementioned Vanderbilt offense is the only team to score 30 points on them all season. If Ole Miss can keep LSU under that number, they should score enough to cover this spread. In addition, the Rebels have covered seven of the last eight meetings.

PLAY: Mississippi for 1 unit.

Nevada (-9 1/2) at Utah St.

This is off the beaten path, and I generally don't like laying this many points, but I feel it's warranted. Nevada is bowl-eligible at 6-3, with its only losses coming to the Pac-10's Washington St., the Big 12's Colorado St., and Boise St. Any time the Wolf Pack have played a lesser team, they've rolled. Utah St. is nowhere near as good as any of the teams that Nevada has beaten, and has lost convincingly to Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, and Idaho, three teams Nevada has dominated. With Jeff Rowe's passing and B.J. Mitchell's running, Nevada has an offense that Utah St. can't match, especially with its starting quarterback, Leon Jackson, sidelined.

PLAY: Nevada for 1 unit.

Missouri at Kansas St. (-2)

Okay, I laid an egg last week by going with Wisconsin in Barry Alvarez's last home game. Hopefully Kansas St. can win one here for outgoing coach Bruce Snyder. As for the players on the field, the Wildcats' defense has been great in holding Missouri's Brad Smith in check during his career, as he has yet to beat Kansas St. (the Wildcats' dominance in this series goes back to them covering seven of the past 10 years). And any deficiencies in the K-State offense should be cured by playing the sieve-like Missouri defense.

PLAY: Kansas St. for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-3 for a net loss of 1.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). College season record: 22-21 for a net loss of 1.1 units.