11/16/2004 12:00AM

Think small to win big in NCAA football

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If you were to survey the top sports bettors for their best advice to beginners, near the top of the list would be: "Concentrate on smaller conferences in college sports."

The reason is that oddsmakers are able to make much sharper lines on games in the major conferences because they have plenty of information on the teams. They know less about teams in the smaller conferences.

I was reminded of this last Friday night during the Stardust Invitational matchup between Jimmy Vaccaro and Cesar Robaina. I was standing next to Andy Ducay, a sharp sports bettor in his own right. Halfway into the show, we were distracted by a conversation taking place behind us.

A young man, probably in his mid-20's, approached his friends and asked, "Are these guys any good?" referring to Vaccaro and Robaina.

A pal responded, "Nah, I stopped listening when that old guy said SMU was one of his best bets. Auburn is playing Georgia, Oklahoma is playing Nebraska, Miami is playing Virginia. All these great games and they're giving out Akron and SMU. They lost all credibility."

If you don't already know how this turned out, I'm sure you can guess.

Robaina won his pick with Akron +1 1/2, as the Zips beat Ohio, 31-19. Vaccaro's SMU pick was also a winner as SMU upset Nevada 38-20 as a 7-point underdog. Each handicapper also had another small-conference winner, as Robaina's pick of New Mexico St. +7 over Florida Atlantic resulted in a New Mexico St. win outright, 35-7, and Vaccaro's play on Kent St. -12 1/2 was an easy winner over Eastern Michigan, 69-17.

That's 4-0 in games that are off the beaten path.

As further anecdotal evidence that picking games in the marquee conferences is tougher, Robaina lost with his plays on Kansas St. in the Big 12, Ohio St. in the Big 10, and the under in the Miami-Virginia game in the ACC. Vaccaro did have a winner on Oregon St. in the Pac-10, but lost with Minnesota in the Big 10. That's a combined 1-4.

In the biggest league of all, the NFL, they combined to go 1-4.

So while it's tempting to bet all the high-profile games that everyone else is talking about, it often pays to think small.

Home sweet home - for a half

Another thing to come out of my conversation with Ducay was an interesting idea regarding first-half bets.

"Bet against teams that are battling for the BCS when they're laying points on the road," Ducay said. "The reasoning is that the home team is sky-high and often sticks around in the first half. When all that excitement wears off, the better team might blow them out in the second half and even cover the spread for the game, but by then you've already cashed your bet."

He pointed to five first-half bets on last Saturday's card: Michigan St. +4 1/2 vs. Wisconsin, Kansas +13 vs. Texas, Wyoming +13 vs. Utah, Washington +17 vs. California and San Jose St. +17 vs. Boise St.

Those bets went 4-1, as Wyoming was the only one to fail to cover in the first half.

This week, the obvious play would be Baylor +17 in the first half vs. Oklahoma. Ducay says he would also consider Temple +7 vs. Boston College since Boston College is trying to win the Big East title and receive a BCS bid.

Bankrolls slip after great week

My college results from last week resemble those of the other handicappers mentioned above. I won with Akron over Ohio, but lost with plays on the Big 12's Texas Tech and the SEC's Georgia. For the season, my college bankroll plays are 22-18 for a net profit of 2.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1).

In the NFL, I had a seemingly winning week turn into a loser during the late afternoon games as the Bengals rolled over the Redskins, but then the 49ers, leading the Panthers 17-0 late in the first half, lost 37-27 with a second-half collapse. Earlier in the day, I had won with the Ravens over the Jets and lost with the Texans and Chiefs. My 2-3 mark dropped the NFL bankroll plays to 24-25-1 for a net loss of 3.5 units.

NFL betting trends - splitsville

The results between home/away teams and favorites/underdogs were both split 7-7 in the NFL this past weekend. For the year, road teams still lead 73-66-5 (53.5 percent when discarding the pushes) and underdogs are 74-64-5 (53.6 percent). Both edges are negligible when taking the 10 percent vig into account.

Over/unders were also split 7-7 with overs now holding a 73-68-3 (51.8 percent) mark on the season.

Home dogs were 3-3 both straight up and against the spread. They are 23-21-1 on the year, with a whopping eight home dogs this week: Bills, Bengals, Bears, Saints, Raiders, Giants, Texans, and Chiefs.

The AFC/NFC battle was 2-2 last week; the AFC leads for the season, 22-14-1 (61.1 percent). There are six interconference games on Sunday.

There hasn't been a double-digit underdog in five weeks, but there are two this week: Dolphins +10 vs. the Seahawks and the Redskins +11 vs. the Eagles. Double-digit dogs are 3-2-1 against the spread this season, despite losing all six games on the scoreboard.

Who's hot, who's not

The Chargers return to action this week, with a 7-1-1 record against the spread and as 4 1/2-point favorites at the Raiders. The Patriots have the second-best mark against the spread at 6-1-2, with their only loss to the Steelers, who have won and covered a league-high seven straight games and are 7-2 on the season along with the Ravens. The Eagles, Jaguars, Vikings and Cardinals are all 6-3.

The Dolphins have the worst spread record at 2-7. The Bengals and Saints both won and covered last week to move into a tie for next-worst with the Raiders, Chiefs, Titans, Redskins, and Cowboys at 3-6.

The Colts are the highest-scoring team in the league at 33.1 points per game, so it's not surprising that they have the best over record at 7-2. The Rams, Saints, and Steelers were all under last week to drop to 6-3 along with the Chargers.

The Redskins, with an offense that hasn't scored 20 points in a game this season, lead the under category at 7-2. The Broncos, who were idle last week, are 5-2-2 with the under. The Jaguars, Eagles, and Panthers all went over to drop to 6-3 with the under to drop into a tie with the Falcons.