09/29/2005 12:00AM

Three ways to view college class-droppers


LAS VEGAS - When a horse gets beat in stakes company and then drops in class, conventional wisdom says you can look at it one of two ways.

Either you can go on the assumption that facing weaker competition will help the horse have a better chance of winning, or you can conclude that the horse is not capable of winning at even the lower level.

I generally go with the former, trusting that a horse is better for the experience and will dominate lesser foes, especially if the horse excelled at that level previously.

But handicapping is not an exact science, and there's really a third way of looking at it. The rigors of facing tougher competition can sometimes take a lot out of a horse, leaving him a shell of his former self so that even the drop in class doesn't help.

This horse racing analogy is how I look at my first two plays Saturday. East Carolina looks like a team that should benefit from having faced tougher competition, whereas Oregon St. looks like it has been run into the ground.

Southern Miss. at East Carolina (+7)

East Carolina has improved under first-year coach Skip Holtz. The Pirates' offense played well in a 44-34 loss at Wake Forest, and the defense stepped up at West Virginia (a tough place to play) in a 20-15 loss. If both units can play well Saturday, East Carolina can upset a very shaky favorite in Southern Mississippi. But this is as much a play against Southern Miss as it is a play on East Carolina. Because of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Golden Eagles have had a very fractured fall, with two games being postponed. They've played only twice, and they weren't too sharp in their last outing two weeks ago vs. Division I-AA McNeese St., winning 48-20 after being aided by their opponent's turnovers and special-teams miscues. In this case, I'll take the race-tested horse.

PLAY: East Carolina for 1 unit.

Washington St. (+2) at Oregon St.

The last two weeks, Oregon St. has been blown out 63-27 by Louisville (and that even looks less excusable after Louisville lost to South Florida) and 42-24 by Arizona St. It's hard to see Oregon St. bouncing back from two whippings, especially since OSU's biggest weakness has been its pass defense and Washington St. comes in with Alex Brink and Jason Hill who form one of the most underrated quarterback-receiver combos in the Pac-10. This should be a shootout, but I can't say I'm convinced that oddsmakers have the right favorite. I'll take the undefeated (albeit against lesser competition) Cougars and the points.

PLAY: Washington St. for 1 unit.

Kansas St. (+6 1/2) at Oklahoma

Oklahoma has been dropping games and dropping in the eyes of pollsters and oddsmakers, and I hope I haven't missed the boat, but I just can't pass on the underdog Wildcats here. OU's usually stout run defense has been sieve-like, and Kansas St. again has a very potent ground game with Thomas Clayton, who leads the nation in rushing with 164.5 yards per game. Clayton has run into a little bit of trouble - in danger of having a boot put on his tire for parking violations, he allegedly drove away, nearly hitting a campus police officer, and was arrested. However, even if Clayton gets the boot this Saturday, his replacement last week, Parrish Fisher, ran for 169 yards in his place. Oklahoma's offense has more problems, and the Wildcat defense should be able to hold its own. In addition, coach Bruce Snyder always has had good game plans vs. Oklahoma, and Kansas St. has covered the spread in the last three meetings, including the 35-7 shocker in the 2003 Big 12 title game when Oklahoma was thought to have the best team in the land. OU is way down since then, while this Kansas St. teams ranks with that year's squad.

PLAY: Kansas St. for 1 unit.

New Mexico (+2 1/2) at TCU

This game could be grouped with the earlier games, as TCU has had a very grueling campaign already: a shocking upset (at the time) of Oklahoma, a letdown loss to SMU, and back-to-back overtime wins over Utah and BYU. One can wonder if TCU can get up for another big game, albeit one that could determine the front-runner in the Horned Frogs' new conference, the Mountain West. One thing I know is that New Mexico coach Rocky Long will have his team ready for this matchup. Running back DonTrell Moore should have a big game on the ground, and quarterback Kole McKamey has been steady if not spectacular. In addition, TCU quarterback Tye Gunn is questionable with a shoulder injury, and even though backup Jeff Ballard stepped in last week to help lead the comeback vs. BYU, I'll take my chances with a New Mexico defense that has 11 sacks and seven interceptions already this year.

PLAY: New Mexico for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-1 for a net profit of 0.9 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 8-4 (67 percent) for a net profit of 3.6 units.