07/03/2003 12:00AM

Wise guys believe 'under' is the play


The NFL season is right around the corner. The first team starts training camp in less than two weeks (July 18, the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers), preseason action begins in less than a month (Aug. 2, Bucs vs. the Jets in the American Bowl from Tokyo), and the regular-season opener is less than two months away (Sept. 4, Jets at Redskins).

And if you haven't started your handicapping, you're already behind the curve. The so-called "wise guys" (or professional bettors) have been analyzing player movement, team schedules and draft choices, and they're ready to fire away when they see money-making opportunities.

Bookmakers, knowing that football bets are popular all year long, have obliged. Super Bowl futures have been up at most major Las Vegas sports books since before last season's title game in January. The Imperial Palace on the Strip then takes a leadership role by usually being the first to take bets on odds to win each conference, odds to win each division, point spreads for the first week of the season, and point spreads for marquee games throughout the season.

But probably the most popular offseason bet of them all is the over/under regular-season win totals for each team. The Imperial Palace posted its odds in May, with other books around Las Vegas starting to put up their own versions now. The bet is easy to follow. You're wagering whether a team will exceed or fall short of its posted number. Only victories matter (ties count as losses) and you don't have to worry about the team covering the spread in each game. In addition, unlike a Super Bowl (or conference or divisional) future wager in which you can only bet on a team to achieve a certain level of success, you can also bet against a team if you think it will underachieve.

Even though the odds have a 30-cent straddle (the difference between what a bettor must lay on the favored side and the buyback on the underdog) and bets are limited to $500, the over/unders are popular with professional bettors.

"At this point, I would say we've received 80 to 85 percent wise guy money on the season over/unders," said Jay Kornegay, director of race and sports at the Imperial Palace. "When preseason games start, public money will dominate in August, and most public money comes in on the overs."

Conversely, wise guys will look at the unders because they knows oddsmakers will often shade the numbers higher because of the public's tendency to bet over. In fact, the three biggest moves so far have been toward the under, with wise guys gambling that the IP made the price too high on the Cowboys, Steelers, and Panthers.

The Imperial Palace opened the Cowboys at 7 1/2 wins, with +120 on the under and -150 on the over. Bettors have been pounding the under, moving it to favoritism and all the way up to -180 as of Wednesday evening.

"We thought that the opening price was right because, even though the Cowboys were only 5-11 last year, they weren't that bad and were actually pretty competitive," Kornegay said. "Now they get [Bill] Parcells, who might be one of the best coaches ever. He could turn this team around, he's done it in the past. The key will be quarterback play. If they get good play from that position, or at least someone that doesn't cost them games, they're a .500 team."

At least Kornegay hopes so, or else he will be paying off all those bettors.

The Steelers opened with an over/under of 9 1/2 wins, with the over at -180 and the under at +140 (the straddle increases to 40 cents as the odds go up). Wise guys have also taken the under, driving the price down to -135 on the over and +105 on the under.

"We really thought the right number of Steelers wins is 10," Kornegay said, "but if you post 10, that means it takes 11 wins to top it and that's hard to do. So, we went with 9 1/2 with a higher price on the over."

The Panthers at 7 1/2 wins, with -150 on the over and +120 on the under, have been bet to pick-em, -115 either way.

"Last year, they had the No. 2 defense behind the Buccaneers," Kornegay said. "We think they've made good moves and upgraded their offensive line. But they're pretty much in the same situation as the Cowboys: they need consistent QB play."

And Kornegay is in the same situation with both teams, needing them to reach eight victories. But even though the money is coming in hot and heavy on (or in these cases, against) these teams, Kornegay and his staff haven't moved any of the win totals yet, only the money lines attached to them.

"We'll usually end up moving three or four numbers each year, but not until there's a major injury or after a few preseason games," Kornegay said. "But even then, we won't move off a number until it's gone into the high $2 range (-260 or -280 on the money line) and approaching $3 (-300)."

As for the other NFL bets, Kornegay said none of the week 1 point spreads or "games of the year" (four marquee matchups from each week of the season) have moved more than half a point, with the exception of two lines that have moved between pick-em and -1. That's still the equivalent of a half-point move since no NFL team is ever made a half-point favorite.

Colleges on the board, too

With last weekend's controversial move of Virginia Tech and Miami to the Atlantic Coast Conference, there is a lot of discussion about what this means for the future of college football. But it means nothing as far as college football futures are concerned.

Since team schedules are already set, neither school will play in the ACC this year, and the ACC won't have a conference championship game. In fact, the only two conferences with such title games are the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference. Kornegay said there hasn't been any odds changes in the IP's futures on those. Auburn is the 5-2 favorite to win the SEC, with Tennessee and Georgia both at 3-1. Oklahoma is 2-3 to win the Big 12, with Kansas State at 3-1 and Texas at 7-2.

Defending national champ Ohio State has been bet down from 10-1 to 5-1 to win the Sugar Bowl, the BCS title game to be played on Jan. 4 in New Orleans. Miami has been bet down from 12-1 to 6-1. Other big moves have been on Auburn (opened at 40-1, now at 10-1), Virginia (75-1 down to 40-1) and Pittsburgh (75-1 down to 30-1).

Kornegay said the Imperial Palace will be putting up its college "games of the year" this Sunday, with the over/under season win totals next Sunday, July 13.