11/27/2003 12:00AM

You can watch 'em or win 'em

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This is one of the hardest weekends of the college football season to handicap.

I've written a couple of times about trying not to bet games just because they're on TV - that willpower is really put to the test as the college football slate gets thinner and thinner and just about every game seems to be on TV.

I was faced with this problem Thursday, when Mississippi was a 19 1/2-point favorite over Mississippi St. Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning has shown the ability, just like his brother Peyton, to pile up big numbers against weak competition but hasn't come through against upper-echelon teams. It looked like an easy blowout against a Mississippi St. team that hasn't shown much heart late in the season, but I just couldn't lay that many points in a rivalry game.

I was faced with a similar problem for Friday. I initially thought Colorado getting 3 points at home against Nebraska and Arizona getting 15 1/2 points at Arizona St. would be solid plays in rivalry games. I also thought about playing Arkansas getting 9 1/2 points at LSU, in a game with BCS implications. But I had to ask myself if I would consider these three games worthy bankroll selections if they were being played on a full Saturday card. When I couldn't honestly answer yes, I knew I had to pass.

As for Saturday's card, I also struggled, with only 20 games to choose from. After strongly considering Pittsburgh +3 1/2 vs. visiting Miami-Fla., with Pitt receiver Larry Fitzgerald making his final bid to sway Heisman voters, I just couldn't go against Miami-Fla. The Hurricanes still have the better all-around talent and are trying to win the Big East title - it's their last year in the conference before joining the ACC next season - and get a BCS bowl bid.

The rest of the card was just as tough, with several big favorites that looked as good as the Mississippi game I passed on Thursday (Missouri -26 vs. Iowa St., TCU -24 vs. SMU, Boise St. -22 vs. Nevada, and Fresno St. -20 vs. UTEP), but again I opted to pass on laying that many points.

Instead, I narrowed my top choices down to these two short underdogs:

Va. Tech (+1 1/2) at Virginia

I was surprised when this line came out at pick-em, and even more surprised when Virginia was bet to favoritism. Virginia is a decent team at 6-5, but Virginia Tech is 8-3 and for a while was considered a legitimate national title contender. Basically, this comes down to being a team with a better passing game (Virginia) vs. a better running game (Tech). Four out of five times, I'll go with the team with the better running game since it's usually more consistent. Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones has rushed for 1,419 yards and would be a Heisman contender if the rest of the Hokies had lived up to expectations. Virginia is allowing more than 160 rushing yards per game, so Jones should have plenty of holes to run through. Virginia QB Matt Schaub has completed more than 70 percent of his passes, but last year the Hokies held him to only 43 yards through the air en route to a 21-9 win. Some people might say Virginia has a revenge motive, but Tech has won the last four in the series and seven of the last 10, so the Hokies have been shooting down Virginia's revenge plans for a while.

PLAY: Virginia Tech for 1 unit.

UAB (+1) at Houston

This is another game where I think the wrong team is favored. For one thing, Alabama-Birmingham has been dominant in the series, winning all three times the schools have met. Houston does have a better record this season - 6-5 compared to Alabama-Birmingham's 5-6 - but UAB has played better for the most part against its common opponents. The one time UAB played a top program, the Blazers only lost 16-13 to Georgia as a 30-point underdog. Houston's game vs. Michigan was a 50-3 blowout as a 27 1/2-point dog. Both teams also played TCU, with UAB losing 27-24 and Houston losing 62-55. A lack of defense has been the norm for Houston this season, including last week, when the Cougars allowed 779 yards in a 66-45 loss to Louisville. That was Houston's fourth loss in five games. UAB comes into this matchup having won two of its last three games, including a 22-19 upset at South Florida as a 7-point underdog. I'll take the hotter team with the better defense.

PLAY: UAB for 1 unit.

Last week: 3-2 for a net profit of 0.8 units (based on laying 1.1 units to win 1). Season record: 32-28 for a net profit of 1.2 units.