12/31/2001 12:00AM

Underdogs prospering in bowls


When the accountants at Nevada's casinos add up the winnings from the extended New Year's weekend, the bottom line will come down to how the high rollers fared at the baccarat and blackjack tables on the Strip. But regardless of how that turns out, the bean counters are going to be very pleased when they see how the sports books fared.

Underdogs have been barking in the pre-New Year's bowl games and in the NFL. Through Saturday, underdogs covered nine of the 12 bowl games and won seven of those outright.

Bookmakers estimate that only 25 percent of the overall bowl handle was bet through Saturday - so 75 percent of the handle will be on the other 13 games between Monday and Thursday. But bookmakers say the first dozen games have gone so well for them that only a monumental collapse in the remaining games can keep them from showing a healthy profit. That would involve a lot of parlayed favorites, so bookmakers would be content with a 50-50 split on Monday's and Tuesday's bowls, which would also kill a lot of teasers and parlays going into Wednesday's Orange Bowl and Thursday's Rose Bowl.

With 280,000 tourists in town over the weekend, there was a lot of money on the favorites in the NFL Sunday. If those games had held to form, the books might have given back their bowl profits in one day. That wasn't the case, however, as dogs covered 10 of the 14 NFL games on Sunday (the favored Bucs won Saturday night) and burned a lot of money. Eight of those dogs won outright, knocking off some the biggest favorites of the day, including the Steelers, Jets, 49ers, and Titans.

Even though some books got sided, one of the biggest money makers for the house was the Packers' 24-13 win over the Vikings. The Packers opened as an 11-point favorite last week but when Viking quarterback Todd Bouman was declared out, the line got bet up to 13 around town. The bettors who laid 11 got a refund, but all the other bettors (and mostly tourists) who continued to bet them at -11 1/2, -12, -12 1/2, and -13 were losers.

It would have been worse for the public if the Packers hadn't rallied, since at least the teaser bettors won that one. On the day, favorites that were teased 6 points were only 7-7. That's not good, considering you have to hit two of them and lay 11 to win 10 on top of that.

So the books cleaned up on teasers and parlays, too.

Some consolation in hoops

The public has been faring better on basketball, which is not unusual at this time of year when bookmakers are still focusing most of their attention on football. Handicappers who put in their time can find soft lines, with bookmakers putting up hundreds of college and NBA games a week while still probably spending half their time on the limited number of football games.

But sports book directors around Las Vegas aren't crying over their losses, because the handle on basketball is still a drop in the bucket compared to football.

Make-or-break time

My college football bankroll has been up and down all season long. Heading into the bowl season, it was at 963 units after starting the season at 1,000. But with a 7-3 bowl record so far, and +37 units, the record is back to even for the year. The last deluge of games will determine if the bankroll shows a profit for the season.

I mostly have put my faith in underdogs. The same goes for the Orange Bowl on Wednesday night.

Maryland (+16) vs. Florida

There's no question that Florida is among the most talented teams in the nation. QB Rex Grossman passed for a school-record 3,896 yards and 34 touchdowns, which is saying a lot with all the great passing teams coach Steve Spurrier has had. They also get RB Earnest Graham back in the lineup. Graham sat out both Gator losses this year.

And the defense is swarming.

But this selection is all about line value. When I handicapped this game before the odds came out, I figured that Florida should be favored by 9 or 10 points. Instead, this game has the biggest spread of any bowl game. It's reminiscent of last year's Orange Bowl when Florida State was an 11-point favorite over undefeated Oklahoma. If anything, this big line should motivate a Maryland team that doesn't feel it has received respect despite winning the ACC.

This Maryland team is no worse than the Tennessee and Auburn teams that beat Florida outright. The Terrapin defense has forced 34 turnovers (that's more than three a game), and the offense should be able to keep them rested with a balanced attack that features RB Bruce Perry (113 yards per game) setting up an unspectacular but efficient passing game with quarterback Shaun Hill.

It's a formula that should avoid a blowout, and that's all we need.

Play: Maryland for 11 units.

Bankroll through last Friday: 1,012 units.

Saturday's results: 1-2 for net loss of 12 units.

Bankroll entering Monday's games: 1,000 units.