12/10/2009 12:00AM

Sports books gear up for NCAA's bowl season

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LAS VEGAS - The Army-Navy game is the only Division I game on the schedule this weekend, but that doesn't mean that college football has been ignored in the Nevada sports books this past week.

To the contrary.

When the BCS bowls were announced last Sunday, the lines went up on the betting boards, and by late Monday morning all of the rest of the 34 bowl games were available for wagering, with the exception of the games involving Navy (vs. Missouri in the Dec. 30 Texas Bowl) and potentially Army (vs. Temple in the Dec. 29 Eagle Bank Bowl if the Cadets win Saturday, otherwise it'll be UCLA taking on Temple).

The game that garnered the most attention was the BCS national championship game, to be held Jan. 7 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., between Alabama and Texas. A week ago, the Lucky's sports books here in Vegas had an advance line of Texas -3 vs. Alabama if that matchup materialized. However, after Alabama routed Florida in the SEC title game and Texas needed a last-second field goal to beat Nebraska in the Big 12 title game, the Las Vegas Hilton opened Alabama as a 4-point favorite. The Stratosphere and the MGM Mirage books went with Alabama -4 1/2, more in line with what offshore books were posting. Early money supported that decision, and most books moved to Alabama -5 by the middle of the week, though the Hilton has held the line at 4.

In the other BCS bowls, Oregon opened -3 1/2 vs. Ohio State in the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl; Florida opened -10 1/2 vs. Cincinnati in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl (but has been bet to 10); Texas Christian opened -8 vs. Boise State in the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl (but has been bet down to 7); and Georgia Tech opened -3 vs. Iowa in the Jan. 5 Orange Bowl (and has been bet to -3 1/2 and even 4 at some books).

The bowl committees appear to have done a decent job of making competitive matchups as more than half (17 out of 32) of the opening numbers were 4 points or less and only three games had spreads in double digits.

My top pick in the early bowl games? BYU +2 vs. Oregon State in the Dec. 22 Las Vegas Bowl (it's almost a home game for BYU, which is making its fifth straight appearance here). More plays in the coming weeks.

Back to the NFL betting board

Last week, I went 1-2 with my three NFL picks, with a win on the Lions vs. the Bengals but losses on the Titans vs. the Colts and the Ravens vs. the Packers. That dropped me to dead break-even on my plays in this space. It was a frustrating weekend as I went 4-4 overall with my plays while underdogs went 10-6 against the spread, double-digit dogs were 3-0 against the spread (I only used the Lions and skipped the other two, the Raiders and the Browns) and home dogs went 7-3 ATS. Those are usually weeks when I clean up. Well, here's hoping the dogs keep barking:

Bengals +7 vs. Vikings

Here's a stat you won't see or hear in the mainstream sports media, but it's common knowledge in the sports books here in Vegas: the underdog is 12-0 against the spread in Bengals' games this year. Yep, the six times they've been favored, they have failed to cover the spread (though they did win three of those games straight-up) and the six times they've been underdogs, they've not only covered but won outright. This comes down to the fact the Bengals have been playing to the level of their competition: they swept the Steelers and Ravens despite being underdogs in all four of those games, yet they went out and lost at Oakland and the past two weeks they've had non-covering wins over the Browns and the Lions. Well, they're in the motivating role of underdog once again here against the Vikings, and I see them covering again, if not pulling the upset. The Bengals have the No. 4 defense in the league, allowing just 293.3 yards per game, to contain Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson & Co., and a balanced offense to attack the Minny D.

PLAY: Bengals for 2 units.

Dolphins +2 1/2 vs. Jaguars

The Dolphins, even with the season-ending injuries to Chad Pennington and Ronnie Brown, are probably a better team at 6-6 than they were last year when they went 12-4. Their schedule is much tougher this year (having to play the NFC South instead of the much weaker NFC West), but they served notice last week with the win over the Patriots that they haven't given up on defending their AFC East championship and can at least get back in the wild-card race with a win over the 7-5 Jaguars, who are only favored because of a supposed home-field advantage. However, road teams are 101-87-3 against the spread this year, so that doesn't scare me off taking the better team on the road.

PLAY: Dolphins for 1 unit.

Panthers +13 1/2 vs. Patriots

The Patriots have been struggling lately. Granted, two of their losses were to the Colts and Saints, so there's no shame in that, but they really haven't had a dominating win since they won in London way back in Week 7. I'm not ready to put a fork in them, but they also don't look sharp enough right now to expect them to win by two touchdowns, especially against a Carolina team that has been playing better defense (allowing less than 16 points per game the past three weeks after nearly shutting down the Saints before getting blown out late) and has the running game to control the clock. This should be low-scoring (especially if weather plays a factor) and the Panthers should be able to keep it close.

PLAY: Panthers for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-2 for a net loss of 1.2 units (based on risking 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 21-20, including 2-1 on 2-unit plays, for a net loss/profit of 0 units.