04/25/2002 12:00AM

Windows open on next football season


College football teams have concluded their spring practices. The NFL has held its draft. The 2002-03 football season is right around the corner. Pretty soon, the football annuals will be hitting the newsstands, summer practices will start and then the season will be here.

Football wagering accounts for 40 percent of the annual sports-betting handle in Nevada, so the sports books take every opportunity to get the betting started. Super Bowl futures for next January's game have been up since before the Patriots upset the Rams back in February. Week 1 NFL lines have been up for three weeks. And now future odds on the Fiesta Bowl - the BCS Championship Game this season - are up for college football aficionados.

The perennial powerhouses are at the top of lists at the Imperial Palace and Station Casinos, but comparison shoppers can find some early bargains.

Station has made defending national champion Miami-Fla. a 7-2 favorite, while the Imperial Palace opened the Hurricanes at 6-1. Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports book operations for the Station Casinos, says the Miami-Fla. program doesn't rebuild, it reloads.

"The 'Canes were so dominant last year," Manteris said. "Sure, they lose some top players, but they're supposed to be just as strong. They deserve to be the team to beat."

Jay Kornegay, race and sports book director at the Imperial Palace, and his staff installed Oklahoma as the 5-1 favorite.

"We take a long look at the returning players and each team's schedule," Kornegay said. "Oklahoma doesn't play Nebraska (unless they meet in the Big 12 title game) and they play Texas on a neutral field. That puts them in a great position."

The Imperial Palace has Miami-Fla., Texas, Florida State, and Nebraska all at 6-1. Tennessee is next at 8-1, followed by Florida (10-1), Colorado (15-1), Michigan (20-1), Ohio State (25-1), Kansas State (25-1), and Washington, LSU, Maryland, Georgia and Oregon all at 30-1. In all, the IP future book has 38 teams listed plus a field bet at 10-1.

Station has higher odds on Florida State (8-1), Nebraska (18-1), Florida (18-1), LSU (50-1), and Maryland (60-1). Station lists 49 teams and opened its field bet at 30-1.

The best overlay appears to be Nebraska at 18-1 at Station. The Cornhuskers, another team that seemingly has an endless supply of talent, lose Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, but they have a schedule that should get them to the Big 12 title game.

Nebraska's non-conference slate is Troy State, McNeese State, Utah State, and Penn State Even if the Cornhuskers's early-season RPI suffers with such a cupcake schedule, that should be remedied by an undefeated record and playing in a power conference.

Besides the odds, there is another noticeable difference in the future book sheets distributed by the two casino companies. Station Casinos has a disclaimer that reads: "Station Casinos sports books reserve the right to cancel all 2003 Fiesta Bowl future wagers if it is determined to violate any federal, state or county law, ordinance or regulation."

Manteris said he did it to inform the public of the possibility of a college betting ban that would make this type of wager illegal.

"It's unfortunate that this even needs to be addressed at all," Manteris said. "I love college sports as much as anyone, from both a business standpoint and a fan standpoint. It would be a real shame if that legislation went through. We just thought it was in everyone's best interest to be upfront about it."

Sen. John McCain and other congressional leaders say that having college sports betting legal in Nevada leads to illegal betting in other states. Manteris counters by saying illegal betting has always existed and would continue to thrive if it was banned in Nevada, plus the NCAA would lose its top watchdog for spotting fixed games.

"It should be pretty clear to anyone who looks at the facts," Manteris said. "Just look at the number of point-shaving scandals of the 1940's and 50's and what has happened since the emergence of the Nevada sports book industry.

"Point shaving is not a victimless crime. The sports books lose when games are fixed, so we work hard to maintain the integrity of the games. That should be the focus of the NCAA, not whether some guy in Nevada is legally betting $20 on a game."

Kornegay chose not to include a disclaimer on his book's wager. That's sure to be the tack taken by other books when they post their college football futures, which are a new wager for Nevada sports books; they weren't made legal until last February.

The Imperial Palace, which every year has the most ways to bet on football, will be rolling out its odds in the next few weeks.

Kornegay says to expect NFL "games of the year" (point spreads on marquee matchups and nearly every primetime contest) to be up by the end of the weekend, followed by the NFL over/under season win totals, college games of the year, and college over/under win totals.

Ready or not, here football comes.