09/07/2005 11:00PM

When prediction becomes sweet reality

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LAS VEGAS - Sports betting doesn't always go as planned.

Okay, obviously that's an understatement, or else every pick would be a winner. What I mean is that as much as handicappers try to break down a game or a race, the actual event doesn't always follow the script. Sometimes injuries will happen that change the complexion of a game, or turnovers may turn the tide and change a coach's strategy, or the weather might alter game plans. And sometimes there's no excuse - you just had it all wrong.

To be on the wrong side of a bet and seeing the game unfold differently from what you expected is a frustrating experience. Fortunately, there are also times when a game doesn't go as planned and you win in spite of yourself. Those are blessings, indeed.

But the best is when you break down a game and it unfolds as if you were looking in a crystal ball. That's what happened with me last weekend, when I started the college football season 2-0. The perfect start was nice, but I was happier that my analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams played out on the field. It's also a good reinforcement that hard work pays off.

I had Wisconsin -2 1/2 vs. Bowling Green when it seemed the whole world was on the underdog. Before the Badgers' 56-42 victory, I'd written that "with four offensive linemen returning, the running game should be able to wear down the smaller Bowling Green defense." Result: 397 rushing yards on 64 carries (6.2 yards per carry). The next line was, "That should also allow quarterback John Stocco to hook up deep with receiver Jonathan Orr." Result: Stocco and Orr hooked up for Wisconsin's first touchdown after a play-action fake.

As for the 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." Result: Jacobs was impressive, leading Bowling Green to a 13-0 lead that had me sweating, but the Wisconsin defense tightened up to help take control of the game.

My other winner was Notre Dame +3 vs. Pittsburgh, a game which the Irish won, 42-21. Again, the key was in the details. I pointed out that Irish quarterback Brady Quinn had an above-average season last year and that he should continue to improve. Result: Quinn was 18 for 27 and threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns. I also called Notre Dame running back Darius Walker "a budding star." Result: Walker had 100 yards rushing, 52 yards receiving, and two touchdowns.

Of course, even when it looks so easy, it really isn't. So now the goal is to not get overconfident and continue to make wise analyses and choices. Here's this Saturday's attempt with three college games, all of which have live underdogs.

Mississippi St. (+15 1/2) at Auburn

Conventional wisdom says that since Auburn lost its season opener, 23-14, to Georgia Tech that the Tigers will come out inspired in their SEC opener. I see it differently. Last year, Auburn went undefeated and still got left out of the BCS title game. How can the players not think their season is over after one loss, albeit a non-conference one? Beyond that, it was clear that the Tigers are not the same team they were last year. Quarterback Brandon Cox and running back Tre Smith didn't remind anyone of Jason Campbell and the two-headed running machine of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. The defense is also a shadow of its former self, and I feel the Mississippi St. offense will be able to have some success. MSU quarterback Omarr Conner is improving and running back Jerious Norwood has the talent to be one of the best in the SEC. If this line was around a touchdown or in the low teens I'd probably pass, but at +15 1/2, I have to jump on the Bulldogs.

PLAY: Mississippi St. for 1 unit.

California at Washington (+9)

This matchup reminds me of the Mississippi St.-Auburn game. A recent upper-echelon team is playing an also-ran from last year, with oddsmakers and bettors seeming to give points based more on reputation than personnel. We'll see if I'm catching a mistake or making one of my own. In this game, California is nearly a double-digit favorite despite losing quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the draft and Rodgers's successor, Nate Longshore, broke a leg last week. The two backups - Joe Ayoob and Steve Levy - combined to go 2 for 17 and somehow led a 41-3 victory over Division I-AA Sacramento St. Washington lost its opener, allowing Air Force to come from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to lose, 20-17, in coach Ty Willingham's debut, but the Huskies showed some good signs. For one, they actually defended the run better than the pass against an Air Force team that usually wins on the ground. That experience should bode well as they try to contain Cal running back Marshawn Lynch (143 yards vs. Sac St.) and not have to worry as much about the passing game. Washington's offense did enough with mobile QB Isaiah Stanback to suggest the Huskies can keep up with any offense that Cal does muster. The home crowd should also help.

PLAY: Washington for 1 unit.

Boise St. (+3 1/2) at Oregon St.

Boise St. tried to play with the big boys last week, traveling to Georgia and losing, 48-13. It was even uglier than that - Georgia led 24-0 at halftime and 38-0 before easing up. Still, I don't think Boise St. can be thrown out. Last year, Boise St. beat Oregon St., 53-34, and should match up well with the Beavers again. Besides, when looking closely at the loss to Georgia, it was a little misleading. The Broncos actually ran the ball very well, racking up 183 yards on the ground at an average of 5.5 yards per carry. The problems they had were when they went to the air. The normally reliable Jared Zabransky was 8 for 17 and threw for just 73 yards with four interceptions and two fumbles. The OSU defense will pose less of a challenge, and the Boise offense should return to form with the drop in class. And the defense should also have an easier go of it. I'm looking for the straight-up upset.

PLAY: Boise St. for 1 unit.

Last week and season record: 2-0 for a net profit of 2 units.