11/18/2004 12:00AM

USC favorite over any foe in Orange


LAS VEGAS - We have a colliding of collegiate seasons this weekend.

College basketball begins in earnest Saturday. Oh, sure, there were some games last weekend and a smattering of games earlier this week, but most of those were glorified exhibitions against Division I-AA schools and amateur "all-star" teams.

This Saturday, there are 52 college basketball games on the betting boards and 47 football games. The football games will still be getting most of the media attention as it is rivalry Saturday with such traditional clashes such as Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama, Oregon-Oregon State, Washington-Washington State, Stanford-Cal, and even BYU-Utah getting a visit from the ESPN crew as the Utes try to crash the BCS party of the major conferences.

For those who are looking ahead to the BCS title game in the Orange Bowl, the MGM Mirage properties have already posted odds on some of the possible matchups. Southern Cal, the consensus No. 1 team and a virtual lock to remain there if it wins its remaining games over Notre Dame and UCLA, is favored by 3 over Oklahoma and 5 1/2 over Auburn. If those teams stumble - and they do have to play extra games with the Big 12 and SEC title games, respectively - California, which is ranked No. 4 in the BCS could jump up and make it an all-Pac-10 final. USC is favored by 4 over Cal. If unbeaten Utah somehow leapfrogs everyone, the Mirage has USC as a 10-point favorite in that matchup.

But enough about potential matchups that might not even happen (the Mirage will refund any such games). Let's look at this week's games. I will start with two road underdogs in rivalry games and finish with two home dogs:

Florida (+7) at Florida State

Both teams have had disappointing seasons by their own lofty standards. Florida State is still battling for the ACC title, but this is a non-conference game in which the Seminoles will be playing strictly for pride. But Florida is also playing for pride (and a better bowl berth) as the Gators have tried to send off player-friendly coach Ron Zook on a high note. Quarterback Chris Leak has come into his own the past few weeks since the announcement of Zook's resignation, including an SEC-record-tying six TD passes versus South Carolina last week. Leak certainly has the edge on FSU quarterback Wyatt Sexton, who has taken over an offense that has been inconsistent all year. Sexton was only 5 of 18 last week against North Carolina State, albeit in a victory, and he should have similar problems against an athletic Florida defense. The Gators clearly look like the right side as they're getting a full touchdown.

PLAY: Florida for 1 unit.

Oregon (+4) at Oregon State

This could be another outright upset in a rivalry game. Besides in-state bragging rights in the "Civil War," the winner of this game also becomes bowl-eligible, as both teams are 5-5. I give the edge to Oregon with quarterback Kelly Clemens, who will also be getting back his favorite receiver, Demetrius Williams. Oregon State has a non-existent running game and will be unable to take advantage of Oregon's main weakness. When forced to pass, OSU quarterback Derek Anderson still has a tendency to make mistakes. He has completed only 53 percent of his passes this year and has been intercepted 16 times. I will take my chances with Clemens, who completes 61 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The home team has won the last seven meetings in the series, but this relatively low point spread shows the oddsmakers rate these teams pretty even. I will take the points as insurance.

PLAY: Oregon for 1 unit.

Oklahoma at Baylor (+35)

This has the potential to be a really ugly pick if Oklahoma hits on all cylinders. I'm not even going to try and make a case for Baylor matching up with the nation's No. 2 team on offense or defense. This is purely a situational play based on line value. Baylor, despite its 3-7 record, plays much better at home and, in fact, is 4-0 against the spread as a home underdog (the Bears upset North Texas, 37-14, as a 3 1/2-point dog, covered a 20 1/2-point spread in a 30-10 loss to Missouri, got nipped by Iowa State, 26-25, as a 7 1/2-point dog, and then shocked Texas A&M, 35-34, as a 24 1/2-point dog). Oklahoma is much better than all those teams - though the Sooners did have problems in a 42-35 win over Texas A&M - but that's why Baylor is getting a five-touchdown head start. In addition, Oklahoma has received some criticism for trying to run up scores, so the Sooners might take it easy in the second half so as not to offend anyone, and allow Baylor to stay within the number.

PLAY: Baylor for 1 unit.

Colorado State at Air Force (+1 1/2)

At this time of year - with weather being a factor in the northern and mountain regions - it's nice to find a mismatch in the running game. Air Force is No. 4 in the nation with 267 rushing yards per game and faces Colorado State, which averages just 112. That should be key as weather forecasts call for temperatures in the low 30's with an 80 percent chance of snow in Colorado Springs. Both teams are 4-6 and not going bowling, and I also give the "playing for pride" edge to the Air Force Cadets. Colorado State had lost two in a row until beating UNLV last week, but that's a team that quit on the season even before these squads. Air Force, playing at home, should grind out a season-ending win.

PLAY: Air Force for 1 unit.

Last week: 1-2 for a net loss of 1.2 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). College season record: 22-18 for a net profit of 2.2 units.