08/31/2005 11:00PM

Wait-and-see approach in college games


LAS VEGAS - For years, people have said that baseball remains popular in spite of the people who run the sport.

The players get richer and more spoiled. The owners gouge fans with high ticket prices. There have been scandals and a strike. And yet, the fans keep coming back because it's such a great game.

College football also has its share of problems. Commercialism in the game is everywhere, and prices are rising accordingly. The NCAA can't even figure out how to conduct a playoff to determine a true champion, even though every other sport it conducts has one, including in the lower divisions of college football. But fans are putting all that aside this weekend as the new season kicks off.

The popularity of college football is also seen in the fact that the sport is the No. 2 betting sport behind - what else? - pro football.

The season actually began Thursday night, with eight games on the betting boards here in Vegas and another two on Friday, but Saturday offers 30 games for wagering, with another three apiece on Sunday and Monday.

Defending national champion Southern Cal is the undisputed favorite to win the Rose Bowl, this season's BCS title game. With a field of 119 Division I football teams, USC is an even-money favorite against the other 118. The Trojans certainly have the talent to repeat.

The wise-guy selection is the Louisville Cardinals. This spring, the Cardinals opened at 50-1 at some bet shops, but with their relatively easy schedule in the Big East, they have a very good chance to go undefeated, and you'll be hard-pressed to find them higher than 20-1 or 25-1 now. Purdue is another team that has a chance to run the table - the Boliermakers don't have to face Ohio St. or Michigan in Big 10 play. They opened between 60-1 and 75-1 at most sports books, though some books didn't list them and had them only as part of the "field of all others." Purdue is also in the 25-1 range now.

There is plenty of action this weekend. But a big part of my football handicapping is based on what I see, so I tend not to bet too many games early in the season, when the only information on which we can base our bets is from reports from practice and projections of how teams are coming together. So, I'll start this weekend with just two plays and do my homework for the weeks ahead.

Bowling Green at Wisconsin (-2 1/2)

This is the top game on the betting board and is attracting plenty of action. Wisconsin opened as a 4-point favorite, and the line is now under a field goal. Bowling Green is the upset-du-jour for many handicappers, and it's clear to see why. It seems that every year a Mid-American Conference team knocks off a Big 10 program, or at least gives it a scare. And since this is the lowest point spread of the weekend (other Big 10-MAC lines: Northwestern -14 vs. Ohio, Iowa -38 vs. Ball St., Michigan St. -18 vs. Kent, Ohio St. -15 vs. Miami-Ohio, Michigan -18 vs. Northern Illinois, and even Indiana -8 vs. Central Michigan on Friday night) and Bowling Green is expected to contend for the MAC title, it's only logical that the public is siding with the underdog. But as Lee Corso says on ESPN, "Not so fast, my friend."

The fact that Bowling Green is a solid team and that Wisconsin appears to be down from recent years has already been factored into the line. Since the underdog side has been bet down further, it gives value to the Wisconsin side. Although the Badgers might not have the overall talent of past years, they still have a size advantage. And with four offensive linemen returning, the running game should be able to wear down the smaller Bowling Green defense. That should also allow quarterback John Stocco to hook up deep with receiver Jonathan Orr.

On defense, Wisconsin will certainly have its hands full with Bowling Green quarterback Omar Jacobs, but with just two returning offensive linemen, it just might be too early to expect too much from the Falcons.

PLAY: Wisconsin for 1 unit.

Notre Dame (+3) at Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh opened as high as a 5-point favorite, but now the line is down to 3 just about everywhere. In this case, I think the money is on the right side and still playable at +3. Both teams have new coaches from the NFL: Notre Dame hired former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, and Pittsburgh hired former Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt. Looking at just the coaches, you have to like the Irish better. The last time these two men faced off in the pro ranks, the Patriots beat the Dolphins both straight up and against the spread. (Last December's win by the Dolphins over the Patriots was after Wannstedt had been fired, which can be viewed as even further proof of Wannstedt's failings).

Irish quarterback Brady "no relation to Tom" Quinn had an above-average season last year and should continue to improve under the tutelage of Weis. The Irish also have a budding star in running back Darius Walker. Pittsburgh will counter with quarterback Tyler Palko, but I'm not expecting Notre Dame to shut him down. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see a repeat of last year's 41-38 shootout in South Bend. It's just that I trust Weis more than Wannstedt, and getting the points is a bonus.

PLAY: Notre Dame for 1 unit.