12/08/2003 12:00AM

Sooners at center of action

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With undefeated Oklahoma losing the Big 12 title game last Saturday and USC and LSU rolling to victories, that left three major college football teams with one loss and only two spots available in the Sugar Bowl, the BCS title game.

The debates raged about who deserved to play for the national championship, with "strength of schedule" and "quality wins" being discussed as well as whether a late-season loss should count more against a team than an early season setback. When USC was voted No. 1 in both the AP writers' poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll on Sunday, yet came out No. 3 in the BCS rankings, the calls for the dismantling of the BCS system reached a fever pitch.

Here in Las Vegas, however, those kind of debates get pushed to the back burner pretty quickly. There's no point in arguing about things that might have been when there are numbers to hang. You can't take bets on an event that isn't going to happen.

The Casino MonteLago, located at Lake Las Vegas on the east side of town, was the first sports book to put up lines on the official matchups shortly after they were announced Sunday afternoon on the BCS Selection Show on ABC. Sports book director Rob Terch made Oklahoma a 7-point favorite over LSU in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl and USC a 6-point favorite over Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

"We wanted to be first," Terch said, "and those are the games with the most interest. Las Vegas Sports Consultants sent out Oklahoma -6, but I thought that was a little low and went with 7."

At around 4:50 p.m., after discussing the games with his consultants, Stardust race and sports book director Bob Scucci made Oklahoma -5 1/2. Within five minutes, he said a limit bet was made at Sam's Town - which is part of the Boyd Gaming group and linked to the Stardust - and he raised the line to 6.

Last Saturday in this space, Robert Walker, the director of race and sports at the MGM Mirage properties, said he expected to make Oklahoma an 11-point favorite over LSU if they were to meet. Of course, that was on the assumption that Oklahoma would win the Big 12 title game. He also went on to say that Oklahoma would still be in the Sugar Bowl if it lost, "but it certainly would affect the line."

It sure did, cutting it in half. At 5:20 p.m., the MGM Mirage books also made Oklahoma a 5 1/2-point favorite and saw it also get bet up to 6. That's not surprising, since there was a higher number out there at the Casino MonteLago, as well as offshore books like Olympic, which had the line at Oklahoma -6 1/2. (Note: by noon Monday, the Casino MonteLago was still at 7 while Olympic had lowered its line to 6, matching the Stardust and MGM Mirage.)

In addition, several sharp bettors out there were holding tickets on "all others" +10 1/2 or +10 vs. Oklahoma that was available the past six weeks at the MGM Mirage. They were presented with a very nice shot at a middle by laying 5 1/2.

The accompanying chart shows the early line moves at the Stardust, and you can see that the early bowl bettors jumped on the favorites with both USC (vs. Michigan in the Rose Bowl) and Kansas St. (vs. Ohio St. in the Fiesta Bowl) being bet up from -6 to -6 1/2. Maybe they really liked the favorites, or maybe they were betting against the teams from the Big 10.

There was no favorite in the Orange Bowl as the Stardust opened Florida State's rematch with Miami-Fla. as pick-em, but bettors made FSU a 1-point favorite.

Scucci said the rest of the odds for the college bowl schedule - 28 games in all, not counting the Blue-Gray Game on Christmas - were going to be put up Monday afternoon.

Falcons-Colts a big betting game?

With no additional college football games up Monday morning, the Stardust "lottery" at 8 a.m. was pretty light, with most of the action focused on that day's college and pro basketball games. In fact, the only NFL game that took significant early action was the Falcons vs. Colts, and interestingly enough both the side and total were bet enough to move the opening numbers.

The Colts, fresh off their important 29-27 win over the Titans on Sunday to take control of the AFC South, were made an 8-point favorite, but the money came in on the Falcons and was lowered to 7 1/2. Call it the Michael Vick factor, but the total was also bet up from 47 to 47 1/2. (Note: early bettors at the Stardust have gone 8-2 on NFL totals this season.)

Driving for a bargain

While the Casino MonteLago doesn't have a large clientele since it's off the beaten path, Terch has been trying to lure sports bettors out to Lake Las Vegas by putting up lines early as well as offering reduced 5 percent juice on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Instead of laying -110 (risking $110 to win $100) on football bets, players only lay -105, though some games will be -110/even-money, -120/+110, etc., like a dime line in baseball. And unlike the sports book at the Aladdin that no longer allows bettors to have the reduced juice on the key points spread of 3, the Casino MonteLago offers it on all games on the board.

Terch said his lines should be up sometime between 9 and 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.