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Football Returns - But Trust Us, It Pays To Rein In Early Overanxiety...By Nelson Lardner

Sure enough, the first handful of honest-to-goodness NCAA matchups kick off a week from this Thursday . . . with generous helpings of college football action stretching through the Labor Day holiday. The regular-season Saints-Colts NFL opener unfurls under the lights September 6, with a full-blown Week One primed to satiate the starving masses, the following weekend.

We know . . . arbitraging preseason games has been great fun, as per usual, for many . . . but you know what we mean when we say: "About time!" For those of us who've done enough of the work to have reason to believe we might have some semblance of a grip, the nearness of games that actually matter is invigorating. Every NCAA game is clearly some measure of significance . . . ranging from strength-of-schedule considerations, to life-and-death conference championship/bowl-stature situations. And given that they only play sixteen of 'em, the regular-season NFL schedule remains a monument to weekly gravitas, compared to baseball. The professional winter sports, with their endless regular seasons in "pursuit" of beaucoup playoff spots, are by comparison a mockery.

Each league team's 16-game flow chart is the primary focus of many NFL evaluation-practitioners right now. Playing pro-football season-win totals is a popular pastime for seasoned observers . . . especially those wise heads who either play on credit, or are sufficiently endowed in the bankroll department to put their season-win plays in cold storage for four-plus months.

A keen feel for psychological reads on individual teams - as well as a grasp of multi-year performance patterns of teams coming off years featuring specific distinctive statistical nuances - has pointed the way to winning plays on season-win opening numbers for years.

It helps that the numbers are so crude, leaving the player significant elbow room. If you play a team to win fewer than ten games, they have to win eleven to ravage your wallet. If you project a franchise as an eleven-game winner, your reasoning's sound, and the posted number's 9 1/2, that's an enormous advantage.

But, boy, this is a quick-or-dead market. Over 9 - 110 can be advantageous, while the same team at -155 can be decidedly dicey. More and more sharp students are participating, and their broad involvement represents a tsunami wave of educated money, compared to the mile-wide-and-inch-deep dabbling by small-stuff fanboys, ponying up on "liked" teams/coaches.

This stuff can be a reasonable read - so long as you enjoyed early access. Take my two local teams. The Jets over 8 1/2 looked superficially easy, off 2006's 10-6 regular season. But basic reversion to the norm, along with the markedly-more difficult 2007 Jets slate, shapes the "over" as a deep slog (Ravens/Bills/Giants/Bengals/Cowboys/Dolphins/Patriots/Titans on the road? 3-5 at best - and a significant stretch, at that). Calculate the typical Jets unreliability at home (4-4 last year, against an easier sked than '07's), and where are you?

The Giant "low" has been pounded from 8 1/2, for multiple good reasons, not the least of which is RB Tiki Barber's retirement. Eli Manning's been doing some chirping lately regarding Barber's questionable positive effects in the locker room, but Giant fans are entitled to ask just when the hell ol' Eli's going to begin earning his own swollen checks? The one-year extension granted to HC Tom Coughlin was bizarre. The popular rumor among those looking forward to '08 is (now CBS') Bill Cowher, and whether Coughlin's resigned to his eventual fate or primed to exit kicking and screaming, neither mindset fits in with any bullish '07 scenarios.

Both of the aforementioned 8 1/2 are now 8s, with dearly-priced vig (-146 on the Giant under at Pinny . . . with the Jets under 8 currently -128 at Pinny - while -145 at The Greek) . . . not so easy, now, at spot-market terms, eh, what? . . .

Opening-week NCAA prices are similarly affected. Locusts have wasted the fields. You have to bring a legitimate measure of to-the-minute perspective into this season-long joust with market participants who are as hungry, or hungrier, than you - and who bring mucho savvy to the table. You see Notre Dame as a 2 1/2 -point home favorite against Georgia Tech opening weekend. Okay. If you're then saying to yourself, "What the hell do I do with this?", you're late to the party. The likes of the Las Vegas Hilton opened the Irish as close to a touchdown favorite back in July, and the wise boys, blessed with full knowledge of Dame's graduation losses . . . and also well-aware that the ND quarterback situation was in a tizzy due to hotshot frosh QB prospect Jimmy Clausen's ego, questionable readiness, and the legal contretemps surrounding his being cited for finding himself in an alcohol-transporting car in Indiana at age 19 . . . were eager to fade the Domers at anything resembling the opening price.

Given the adjustment . . . at this point, it's Notre Dame or nothing. I'll be looking elsewhere, but can hardly blame value-hunters for embracing ND at this price, if you have any bullish feeling about the squad's 2007 prospects whatsoever. For the season's opening two months, the schedule is beyond brutal, and it's not inconceivable they'll be looking at the world through a pair of 3-5 glasses right after Halloween - especially if they lose this. So, if Charlie Weis isn't ready for the bell, tread lightly. Good advice, for anyone looking to get involved the moment the gate opens.

Nelson Lardner

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