11/20/2003 12:00AM

Under-the-radar games are surest plays


LAS VEGAS - This Saturday is the first of back-to-back rivalry weekends in college football.

A lot of eyes (and wagers) will be on Ohio St.-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Washington-Washington St., as well as Southern Cal-UCLA, even though the Trojans are favored by a whopping 23 points. The first inclination in these games is to go with the underdog since the emotion of the rivalry tends to level the playing field. In addition, the underdog often views the game as its bowl game if it already is out of the postseason running, and the next best thing is to ruin the season of your most bitter rival.

However, that's not the case with Ohio St., which is a 7-point underdog at Michigan - even though the Buckeyes are trying to secure a spot in the BCS title game. It's tempting to take the points with the defending national champ Buckeyes, who have a tendency to play tight games, but Michigan is a solid team that should revel in the role of spoiler.

As has been my modus operandi in recent weeks, I'll focus instead on some lower-profile games that might be under the radar screen for most people, including the oddsmakers.

Northwestern (-3 1/2) at Illinois

Both these teams have struggled throughout the season, but at least Northwestern has shown some signs of competency, beating Wisconsin and Penn St. and hanging with Ohio St. Illinois's only win this year was over Illinois St., and the Illini are only 1-9 against the spread. Northwestern tailback Jason Wright was held in check by Michigan last week, but he still has 900 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns, and he should crack the 1,000-yard mark against an Illinois defense that is allowing more than 200 rushing yards per game, including 195 last week to Indiana, of all teams. This is Illinois's only chance to salvage the season, but it doesn't look likely, even at home.

PLAY: Northwestern for 1 unit.

West Virginia (-2) at Syracuse

If college football was like college basketball and had conference tournaments at the end of the regular season, West Virginia would be a dangerous darkhorse in the Big East, despite only a 6-4 record. The Mountaineers started the season poorly, at 1-3, but after nearly upsetting Miami-Fla., they've won five straight games, including an upset of Virginia Tech and an impressive 52-31 victory over Pitt last week. They're playing as well as anyone in the Big East - and, in fact, at 4-1, they still have a shot at the league title if Miami falters again. Frankly, I'm surprised this line isn't higher. The West Virginia offense should be able to continue racking up points, while the defense should be able to focus on Syracuse running back Walter Reyes, who is pretty much a one-man show.

PLAY: West Virginia for 1 unit.

Clemson (+1 1/2) at South Carolina

I guess I understand why oddmakers have favored the Gamecocks in this game: they're the home team, they've played well against very tough competition - losing to ranked teams Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida by a combined 8 points - and they have the added incentive of needing this victory to become bowl-eligible. But Clemson is the more talented team and really put it together two weeks ago in a 26-10 upset of Florida St., then followed that up with a blowout win over Duke. In this series, the team with the better record is 16-2-1 over the past 22 years. Clemson (7-4) should continue that trend over South Carolina (5-6).

PLAY: Clemson for 1 unit.

Stanford (+10) at California

This line opened at Cal -8 1/2 and all the money has been coming in on the Bears, but that only creates more value on the dog in this bitter rivalry. I've said it before, but I'll say it again - the Pac-10 is the most confusing conference in the country if you're trying to look at common results of who beat whom. Stanford beat UCLA, which beat Cal. But Cal beat Washington, which beat Stanford. In fact, the Bears are coming off that 54-7 win over Washington, but three times this year they have followed up impressive wins with losses. The most glaring example was losing at home to Oregon St., the week after upsetting Southern Cal. They're a mediocre team at 6-6 that shouldn't be trusted to lay double digits to anyone, especially their main rival on the road.

PLAY: Stanford for 1 unit.

Kentucky (+18) at Georgia

Kentucky was rolling along with six straight point-spread covers until three weeks ago when the Wildcats lost 71-63 as 5 1/2-point underdogs to Arkansas in a record-tying seven overtimes. That was a pivotal game for the Wildcats, who obviously suffered a letdown in a 28-17 loss to Vanderbilt last week even though they had a bye week in between. Kentucky should come out with a much better effort against a Georgia team that has failed to cover the last two times it has been a double-digit favorite. Georgia's defense is tough against the run, but it can be vulnerable to the pass. Kentucky's Jared Lorenzen should be throwing the ball all day as that is the Wildcats' only chance to hang with the Bulldogs, though the Wildcats also have kick returner extraordinaire Derek Abney (eight career return touchdowns), who could give them a field-position edge.

PLAY: Kentucky for 1 unit.

Last week: 2-2 for a net loss of 0.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 29-26 for a net profit of 0.4 units.