08/22/2007 11:00PM

Sports books gearing up for college football season


LAS VEGAS - The action in the sports books here has been picking up the past few weeks with NFL preseason games, but it's nothing like we'll see next weekend when college teams start playing for real.

The season kicks off next Thursday with nine games on the betting board and then two games on Friday. Then just about all of the rest of Division I's 119 teams play Saturday. Lines have been up at major Vegas sports books for the past two weeks after the Golden Nugget led the way in late July. While a lot of major programs are playing cream puffs (USC is -45 versus Idaho, Oklahoma is -41 versus North Texas, Texas is -39 versus Arkansas State, West Virginia is -23 versus Western Michigan, and so on) there is one matchup that will have an early impact on the BCS picture as California hosts Tennessee next Saturday as a 5 1/2-point favorite. Another intriguing game is the Bowden Bowl on Labor Day with Florida State and coach Bobby Bowden a 3-point favorite over his son Tommy Bowden's Clemson team.

USC is the clear choice for the BCS National Championship game. Las Vegas Sports Consultants has USC as the 3-1 favorite, though most sports books in town have had the Trojans bet down to 5-2 with some smaller casinos at 2-1 or lower. Michigan is LVSC's second choice at 6-1, with West Virginia (which has been getting a lot of support) at 7-1, defending champion Florida at 8-1, LSU at 10-1, Wisconsin at 15-1, Louisville and Oklahoma at 20-1, and the quintet of California, Florida State, Ohio State, Tennessee, and Virginia Tech at 25-1. As you can see, either California or Tennessee will have their hopes crippled early.

* There are a couple of rule changes this year that should have scoring on the increase. Last year, the NCAA wanted to speed up games and started the clock after a change of possession (including after kickoffs) once the referee made the ball ready for play. That was deemed too extreme as scoring and the number of plays per game dropped. So that rule was rescinded. In addition, kickoffs have been moved back five yards to the 30, which will lead to more returns and better field position. This has a lot of people talking about betting the overs. Of course, the oddsmakers know all this too, and the totals will be adjusted. That being said, when totals are first posted, there will be a lot of people making knee-jerk bets on the over, so the numbers will probably still be bet higher. If you can get down at the opening numbers, there should be some opportunities to hit some middles by betting back the unders at game time.

Teamwork wins Hilton tourney

Mel Sipkoff, 59, of Boca Raton, Fla., won the $31,160 first-place prize at the Pick the Ponies handicapping tournament at the Las Vegas Hilton last weekend, but he'll be the first to tell you he didn't do it alone.

"I was partners with Alan Hasher and Michael Carlat and we worked together the whole way," Sipkoff said. "I handicapped the smaller tracks and Michael did the big races at Saratoga and Del Mar, and Alan blended our plays on other tickets."

But in this case, Sipkoff's entry was clearly the best, as the longshots were coming in at the smaller tracks on Thursday and Friday in the three-day tournament in which contestants make 10 mythical $100 across-the-board wagers each day. Sipkoff's entry was in second place heading into Saturday, but he said he didn't change his strategy.

"I handicap only one way, looking for longshots," he said, and proved it in the sixth race at Ellis Park with Yellow Flag, who paid $63.80 to win, $23.80 to place, and $11.40 to show.

That pretty much clinched the victory. Sipkoff finished with a final score of 18,250, followed by Craig Murray of Las Vegas with 16,805 and Leonard Wohl with 16,155. Murray won $15,580 and Wohl collected $7,380.

It was the first tournament victory for Sipkoff. Carlat, playing with Hasher, won the Surfside Race Place tourney on July 15 at Del Mar to earn his second straight trip to the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

Horse racing notes

In a follow-up to last week's story about the two major handicapping tournaments being played on the same weekend in January, Coast Casinos tournament coordinator Debbie Flaig said that any qualifiers for the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship at Red Rock Casino on Jan. 25-26 can use a proxy to submit plays in the Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans on Jan. 24-26. However, she stressed that option is open only to NHC qualifiers. The only way to play in the NHC is by earning a berth in a qualifying tournament.

* There are no big tournaments in Las Vegas until October, but the smaller, weekly contests continue through the end of the Del Mar meet. These offer a great chance at earning money, as well as being great practice for entering the larger tournaments. The lineup includes Leroy's (Wednesdays), Excalibur (Wednesdays), South Point/El Cortez (Thursdays), Hilton (Saturdays), Jerry's Nugget (Saturdays), and Rampart (second Sunday each month).

* On Thursday, as expected, the Nevada Gaming Commission unanimously approved the deal for Las Vegas Dissemination Co. to act as the U.S. wagering hub for simulcasts of races from Hong Kong, which are known for their huge betting pools and big carryovers on exotic wagers. Canada already has its own non-commingled pools on Hong Kong races.