08/03/2001 12:00AM

Time to root for - and bet on - home team


Football has officially started in Las Vegas. The first NFL preseason game is already in the record books, having been played Friday, and the sports books have already locked up the cash.

This year, there is a subtle difference in the sports books regarding betting on college football. For the first time in history, bettors can wager on Nevada college teams.

A longtime ban on legalized betting on Nevada college sports teams was lifted in February. The action was part of the Nevada Gaming Commission's strategy to ward off efforts to establish a ban on college betting.

With the action on Nevada teams now legal, and a rejuvenation of fan interest in the University of Nevada-Las Vegas football program, locals can bet on the home team without breaking anything but the piggy bank.

Football coach John Robinson, expected to also become athletic director next year, has taken the Runnin' Rebels from also-rans to a bowl team as he moves into his third year as head coach. The UNLV team has been listed in some preseason polls on the fringe of the top 25.

Lending excitement to the prospects of another post-season bowl appearance is the team's quarterback sensation, Jason Thomas. The junior QB will have his hands full as UNLV starts its 11-game season against Arkansas on Aug. 30.

This rematch of last year's Las Vegas Bowl, won by UNLV, 31-14, on its home field of Sam Boyd Stadium, will be at Arkansas on a Thursday night.

While some local sports books haven't posted a line yet, Jay Kornegay, race and sports director at the Imperial Palace, has not only posted a line on the first game, but on six other UNLV games, too. He also has posted an over/under number for wins on the season (6 1/2).

The seven UNLV games are among the 77 games the Imperial Palace has open for action on college football. Big-game matchups and longtime rivalries are among the games offered, such as Michigan-Ohio State, Notre Dame-USC, Florida-Florida State.

Arkansas opened as the 3 1/2-point favorite for the rematch against UNLV. In week two, Northwestern is a 3 1/2-point favorite over the Rebels; Colorado State and UNLV are pick 'em on Sept. 14; and Arizona is a 2- point choice at home the following week.

It isn't until Sept. 29, when UNLV is at home, that the Rebels are favored, by 4 points over Brigham Young. UNLV hosts Utah on Nov. 3 as a 7 point favorite, and then play at Air Force Nov. 17 as a 1 1/2-point underdog.

Kornegay reported there has been more action on UNLV than against.

Last year, his second as UNLV coach, Robinson guided the team to an 8-5 record. Based on offshore "outlaw" lines, his team is 12-11 against the spread.

But local interest is less about the spread than the welfare of the team itself. It seems Las Vegans are swelling with community pride and less interested in inside information.

John Avello, director of race and sports operations at Bally's and Paris, said the buzz in the book is about more than the betting line.

"People are really jazzed more about the team's tough schedule, its quarterback, and Robinson's turnaround with the program than what the spread is," he said. "Everyone is just hoping for a good season with their tough schedule this year, and maybe a repeat bowl win."

Art Manteris, who recently took over as director of race and sports book operations for Station Casinos, the largest locals-oriented casino company, said his sports books will post numbers on the UNLV games week by week and that he will post the spread on the opening game soon.

"UNLV is certainly an important part of our city and we share the excitement of the community in UNLV football for the upcoming season," he said.

With the Rebels's quarterback, Thomas, already being touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, and a repeat bowl appearance a possibility, football in Las Vegas is fun again. As for betting, legal bookmakers are still unsure how much wagering on Nevada teams will add to the bottom line, but they are certain of one thing: betting need be offshore no more.

Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.