8:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: USC -3, Over/Under: 67
The first domino towards a clearer playoff picture falls tonight as Championship Week begins with the eleventh-ranked Utah Utes and the fourth-ranked USC Trojans facing off in the Pac-12 Championship Game from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada. With all this talk about who is arriving and leaving the Pac-12, we would kindly like to remind everyone that its reigning champions, Utah (9-3, 7-2 in Pac-12), are NOT one of the many schools eyeing a transition to a different league. Indeed, consistency is the theme in Salt Lake City, where the Utes have been nothing but the word under the guidance of (longtime Head Coach) Kyle Whittingham. The second-longest tenured Head Coach in the FBS, Whittingham has spent NINETEEN years leading the Utes to a stellar 153-73 record (.677), owning five of the program’s eight 10-win campaigns, with a pair of opportunities ahead of him to make it six overall. A three-time Coach of the Year recipient across two different leagues, the 63-year-old is the Pac-12’s reigning holder of that honor, having led his troops to a resounding 38-10 victory over Oregon in the conference title game las December, and are now making their fourth appearance in this event in the last five years. In comparison to last year’s group, Utah has proven to be statistically better on both sides of the football, though the talking point has been an Offense that appears to be the most dynamic that Whittingham has had during his time on campus. With eight returning starters back from last year’s Pac-12 champion, the most notable has been (Junior Quarterback) Cameron Rising, who has raised his profile considerably over the last three months. A former transfer from Texas, Rising (pictured below) has really made the most of his opportunities at Utah; after his first season on campus ended in the third series of his debut (ironically against USC) and missing all of the following Spring, he took over from (Baylor Transfer) Charlie Brewer and never looked back, with his mobility and leadership igniting a sluggish Offense that went on to put up 38.0 points per game during the last twelve contests. That momentum has carried over into 2022, with the Utes averaging 39.4 points per game (10th in FBS) on very balanced 467.7 total yards (20th in FBS), including 247.7 yards through the air (50th in FBS) and another 220.0 on the ground (10th in FBS), netting 6.53 yards per play (17th in FBS). Rising has been more efficient in completing 66.4% of his passes for 2,629 yards on 8.0 yards per attempt, with twenty-two touchdowns opposed to seven interceptions, while rushing for 391 yards and another six scores thus far, with arguably the finest performance of his collegiate career coming against the Trojans. When these sides met back on October 15th, Rising led an inspiring comeback in rallying the Utes back from a 21-7 deficit to post FIVE touchdowns thirty-nine minutes of play, including the game-winning two-point conversion. When it was all said and done, the Junior completed 30-of-44 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another sixty yards and three more scores (even catching a pass too) in the 44-43 upset at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Whittingham’s troops had their way with the Trojans’ Defense all night, racking up a whopping 562 total yards and thirty-one first downs, as (Senior Tight End) Dalton Kincaid enjoyed the game of his life with 234 yards and a touchdown on sixteen catches. However, with all this talk about the Offense, the Defense has definitely been up to par for the Utes, who have permitted 20.1 points (19th in FBS) on 317.5 total yards, with twenty-three takeaways. After shipping 1,475 yards over a three-game span against the likes of Oregon State, USC, and UCLA, this side of the football has been nearly air-tight, allowing 17.0 points on 271.8 total yards, including just 68.2 versus the run, while logging ten takeaways. (Sophomore Cornerback) Clark Phillips III has been a bonafide BALLHAWK this season has totaled an FBS-leading SIX interceptions, two of which he’s returned for touchdowns.
When we last saw Utah, they bounced back from a narrow 20-17 loss at Oregon to throttle struggling Colorado in a 63-21 drubbing to punch their ticket to yet another Pac-12 title game. This one was never close, folks, as the Utes opened the affair on a 42-0 run to close the first half of play. In roughly one half of football, Rising completed a surgical 17-of-19 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns, before (Redshirt Freshman) Bryson Barnes took over to manage the game the rest of the way. In the end, the visitors racked up a season-high 662 total yards on thirty-three firs downs, rushing for a staggering 383 yards as five different players amassed at least twenty yards on the ground. (Converted Quarterback) Ja’Quinden Jackson erupted for 117 yards and three touchdowns on ten carries, while (Sophomore Tailback) Micah Bernard and (Freshman Tailback) Jaylon Glover each added a score along with ninety-one and sixty-two yards respectively. Kincaid, who is admirably filling the void left by the injured (All-Pac-12 Tight-End) Brant Kuithe, reeled in five passes for 102 yards and a touchdown of his own. Looking to tonight’s affair in Las Vegas, Utah is 5-4 straight-up and 6-3 against the spread versus USC since joining the Pac-12 back in 2011, including each of the last two meetings. The Utes have covered the number in four of their last five games in which they’ve been branded by the oddsmakers as an underdog, including each of their last two instances against the Trojans. With that said, Whigham’s men have failed to cover the line against four straight opponents with winning records, which is obviously the case tonight. Keep an eye on Rising tonight, for the dual threat has REALLY enjoyed tormenting the Trojans over the past few seasons, completing 70.5% of his passes for 766 yards, five touchdowns, and an interception, while rushing for seventy-six yards and another four scores on sixteen carries.
Meanwhile, how ironic is it that in the waning months of the Pac-12 as we’ve come to know it, that the conference as a whole has seen a resurgence? Indeed, SIX of its residents have been named in the latest edition of the College Football Playoff Rankings, more than any other league in the country, including the mighty SEC (5). First among their brethren is USC (11-1, 8-1 in Pac-12), who will be embarking on a new venture, joining the Big 10 in 2024. It’s ironic that after enduring what has been nothing short of a down period for one of the most storied programs in the nation, that the Trojans appear to have turned the corner just before leaving the league that they’ve called home since 1968. However, that’s precisely what has happened; Southern Cal made waves in the offseason in poaching (Head Coach) Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma, with the highly regarded 39-year-old looking to transform the men of Troy back into the powerhouse that they were during the first decade of the 2000s. Since Pete Carroll left back in 2010, USC had burned through three head coaches (and another four of the interim variety) en route to amassing an 87-54 (.617) record with just one Pac-12 title to show for it (2017), and most importantly ZERO appearances in the Playoff. Riley on the other hand, led the Sooners to four consecutive Big XII titles, including three trips to the Playoff, while raising a pair of Heisman winners during his tenure in Norman. Not long after accepting the Trojans’ offer, he began making excellent use of the transfer portal, adding established upperclassman such as (Senior Tailback) Travis Dye, (reigning Biletnikoff winner) Jordan Addison, and most notably, (former Oklahoma Quarterback) Caleb Williams, who made waves in following him west. As you can imagine, this sizable influx of talent has led to one of the most prolific offenses in the country; Southern Cal ranks third in the FBS in points scored (42.5) on a whopping 506.8 total yards (5th in FBS), including 322.6 through the air (6th in FBS) and another 184.2 on the ground (44th in FBS), all the while parlaying to an explosive 7.1 yards per play (3rd in FBS). Williams (pictured below), who was nothing short of dynamic as a freshman under Riley’s watch in Norman, has been even more dangerous in Los Angeles, completing 65.8% of his passes for 3,712 yards on 9.1 yards per attempt with thirty-four touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions, while rushing for another 351 yards and ten scores, vaulting himself to the top of the Heisman discussion. Granted, Dye was lost for the season recently with a knee injury, but there is no shortage of speed and athleticism on this side of the field for the Trojans, who have shown throughout the campaign that they are capable of putting both yards and points on the board in very short order. With that said, this isn’t necessarily a complete team by any means, for the Defense clearly isn’t of a national championship caliber; it will likely take Riley and (Defensive Coordinator) Alex Grinch another offseason of recruiting and transfers to build this unit into what it needs to be, which isn’t a group that is yielding 26.3 points per game (61st in FBS) on just over 400 total yards. Sure, they’ve managed to get plenty of sacks (35) and takeaways (28), but there have been a few occasions in which they fell considerably short of living up to their hype. During a recent three-game stretch which featured their lone defeat of the season to Utah (43-42), along with close calls against the likes of Arizona and California, USC was torched for 115 points (38.3) on 524.6 yards, including 403.3 versus the pass, which are MAJOR outliers when compared to the rest of the campaign. What was the difference, you ask? Well, takeaways are generally the x-factor for most teams, and the Trojans are no different, for in those three outings, they enjoyed a plus-2 turnovers differential opposed to a staggering plus-22 in the other seven contests.
When we last saw USC, they finished off the regular season with victories over their two biggest rivals, besting UCLA in a 48-45 shootout at the Rose Bowl before besting Notre Dame in a 38-27 triumph at the Coliseum. On a day in which both teams posted over 400 yards of total offense, the difference ultimately proved to be (surprise, surprise) turnovers, with the Trojans’ persistent pressure creating havoc for the Fighting Irish. (Arizona State transfer) Eric Gentry returned from injury to force a fumble, while Sophomore Cornerback) Calen Bullock picked off Drew Pyne as well, handing the football back to Williams, which as we’ve seen already is never a bad thing. Indeed, the likely Heisman finalist has REALLY been making his case of late, completing an efficient 18-of-22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another thirty-five yards and three more scores in last Saturday’s win. It was a seriously balanced attack for Southern Cal, who threw for 232 net yards and rushed for 204 on thirty-nine carries. (Stanford Transfer) Austin jones picked up the slack for the injured Dye, trampling the Irish for 154 yards on twenty-five carries. That victory was their thirty-eighth all-time over Notre Dame in a rivalry that dates back to 1926, snapping a four-game losing streak for USC. Shifting focus to tonight’s Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas, the Trojans will be looking to win their first league title since 2017, which was coincidentally their last appearance, though a win tonight will put them squarely into the playoff for the first time since its inception back in 2014. Riley’s troops are 3-1 against the spread in their last five meetings with Utah, though winless in their last three encounters when branded as a favorite by the oddsmakers. Furthermore, they are 0-4 against the spread in their last five games on a neutral field as a home favorite between 3.5-10 points, which is the case here. As was the case with the Utes, keep an eye on Southern Cal’s Quarterback, for Williams has been special in his first season in the City of Angels. In that previous meeting back in Salt Lake City, it wasn’t Williams’ fault they met defeat, with the Sophomore completing 25-of-42 passes for 381 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for another fifty-five yards on eight carries.