12/02/2005 12:00AM

USC, Texas no locks to cover


LAS VEGAS - Saturday's college football lineup is small in quantity but big in quality.

It's Conference Championship Saturday, as dubbed by ESPN,

with Texas favored by 27 1/2 over Colorado in the Big 12 title game, LSU -2 over Georgia in the SEC title game, Central Florida -1 1/2 over Tulsa in the inaugural Conference USA title game, and Virginia Tech -14 over Florida State in the ACC. Other notable matchups include No. 1 USC -21 over UCLA and the annual Army-Navy rivalry with Navy favored by 6 1/2.

But there's one point spread that will be analyzed and dissected more than any of the above: the much-anticipated Rose Bowl matchup between USC and Texas for the BCS national title.

When the defending-champion Trojans broke from the gate strongly with routs of Hawaii and Arkansas and the media started asking if they were the "greatest college team ever" - and with other perceived

contenders such as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Michigan losing early - most oddsmakers were saying USC would be favored by more than two touchdowns against any other team.

As the season progressed, the Trojans showed chinks in their armor, falling behind several teams early then rallying time and again to win. Meanwhile, Texas was continually blowing out everyone, and the prospective USC-Longhorns line started to drop, until a few weeks ago it settled at USC -6 1/2.

After USC's scare versus Fresno State two weeks ago and Texas's escape versus an inspired Texas A&M team last Friday, the line stayed at 6 1/2.

If both teams roll to easy victories Saturday - and with USC favored by three touchdowns and Texas by nearly four, that's what most people are expecting - or both struggle and happen to squeak out victories, then the line will probably stay at 6 1/2 when sports books re-post the Rose Bowl line on Sunday afternoon. If one team dominates, however, while the other has a harder time, that could certainly sway public perception and the line might move by a point or more.

A much bigger move would occur if either happens to lose Saturday, and then the bigger debate will be if either could lose enough votes in the polls or points in the computer rankings to let another one-loss team, such as Penn State, into the title game.

But anyway you look at it, the Rose Bowl is more than four weeks away, so here are my five plays on Saturday's card.

UCLA (+21) at USC

I will start with a play against the No. 1 team. The Trojans, despite every week saying they're not taking anyone for granted and that they're looking to get off to a strong start, still let lesser teams stay with them until at least halftime. UCLA certainly has offensive weapons in quarterback Drew Olsen and running back Maurice Drew. Both teams are used to playing wide-open affairs, and with this game having an over/under of 74 points, this should be the same. Even if the Bruins fall short of matching the Trojans score for score, they should be able to stay within three touchdowns.

PLAY: UCLA for 1 unit.

Colorado (+27 1/2) vs. Texas

Consider this a correlated bet with UCLA. I just don't see both USC and Texas avoiding at least a little scare, so I'm hoping to at least split these two bets. There's a good chance both will not cover these huge spreads. Texas earlier beat Colorado, 42-17, as the Longhorns jumped out to a 28-0 lead before the Buffaloes knew what hit them. I expect the Buffs to be more prepared for the initial onslaught and to keep it close much longer. Even if they fall behind by more than four touchdowns, quarterback Joel Klatt is capable of getting Colorado the back-door cover if Texas starts putting in its backups.

PLAY: Colorado for 1 unit.

Army (+6 1/2) vs. Navy

This is usually a fun game to watch, even if only out of patriotic duty. Navy has dominated the last three years, winning 58-12, 34-6, and 42-13, but Army has won four games in a row, including victories over Akron, which played in Thursday's MAC title game, and Air Force, so the Cadets are coming in with a lot of confidence. Navy has had a better season at 6-4 overall and is headed to the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, but the Midshipmen have compiled those wins mostly against a weak schedule and were even trailing lowly Temple 17-14 at halftime in their last game two weeks ago. Both teams should be able to run the ball, and I look for a low-scoring game with it probably coming down to a late field goal either way.

PLAY: Army for 1 unit.

Tulsa (+1) at Central Florida

I'm going a little off the beaten path with this game, but I've had better success in recent weeks with non-marquee matchups. Both teams have overachieved this season, especially Central Florida, which is 8-3 after going 0-11 last year. Nevertheless, Tulsa looks like the better overall team with the more explosive offense, and that's reflected in the fact this line is so close even though Central Florida is playing on its home field.

PLAY: Tulsa for 1 unit.

San Diego St. (+3) at Hawaii

The Aztecs are certainly used to nice weather in San Diego, so the trip won't be viewed by them as a vacation the way some other teams do when they visit Hawaii. It should be a high-scoring game, but the difference should be the San Diego State pass defense, which ranked second in the Mountain West and has allowed only five touchdown passes all season. Their run defense has been weak, but they won't have to worry about the pass-happy Warriors exposing it. On offense, the Aztecs actually have a running game, with Lynell Hamilton coming off back-to-back 100-yard games, and should control the line of scrimmage and be more consistent on offense.

PLAY: San Diego State for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-3 for a net loss of 0.3 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). College season record: 27-27 for a net loss of 1.7 units.