The Pac-12 is the first of the P5 conferences to abandon divisional play and just have the top two teams play for the championship. The path included reporters and followers going three pages deep on the myriad of potential tie-breakers as up to five teams were still in the hunt for the two spots as late as two weeks ago. The research came in handy as three teams tied for second at 7-2 in conference play. The end result was two teams from the former Pac-12 south as Utah faces USC for the conference championship Friday night in Las Vegas.
Utah Faces USC For The Conference Championship
For the Trojans, a spot in the college football playoffs is on the line. It would be the first time a Pac-12 team has made it since the 2016 season when Washington made it to the final four teams. The Utes, the defending Pac-12 champs, are looking to upgrade their bowl possibilities with a 9-3 overall record. USC currently sits at number four in the playoff rankings released Tuesday night. They are holding on to the spot just ahead of Ohio State, who will not be playing in its conference championship game. Playoff committee chair Boo Corrigan would not speculate on what happens if USC loses. Does Ohio State jump over the Trojans, despite not playing? We will have to start with what happens Friday night.
USC comes into the game one point shy from being undefeated. The loss came, ironically enough, to Utah back in mid-October. The Utes beat the Trojans on a Cam Rising two-point conversion in the closing seconds of the game in Salt Lake City. The Trojans have lived all season on the back of a high-powered offense. They have won back-to-back games over ranked UCLA and Notre Dame teams, and they have scored 38-plus points per game in the five-game win streak since the Utah loss.
Quarterback Caleb Williams followed head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California at the end of last season. He has gone from highly-rated quarterback to a Heisman frontrunner in that same time span. During that five-game stretch, he is passing at a 68% completion rate to go with 15 touchdown passes against two interceptions. He has another seven touchdowns rushing during that same five games.
The defense is another story. They have been keeping teams in the game…as in the other teams. The Trojans are giving up 405 yards per game, “good” enough to be ranked 91st in the country. They have also given up 42 touchdowns over the course of the season. That’s the same amount the USC offense has produced. They are 110th in the country in red zone touchdown percentage. If this gives you the sense USC is playing a lot of close football games, you get the point. They lead the nation in turnover margin at +22 and it is the difference in the season.
Utah has a +7-turnover margin, and the Utes are pretty good at taking care of the ball. Much was expected of Rising after a breakthrough 2021 season. He has delivered for the most part. His 66.4% completion percentage is roughly two points higher than last year. His 22 touchdown passes are two higher than last season, but so are the seven interceptions. A few deflections led to three interceptions in the loss to Oregon two weeks ago. In the win over USC, he carved up the Trojans’ defense for 415 yards and five total touchdowns.
Conversely, Utah’s defense is the best in the conference allowing 317 yards and 20 points per game.
Our current projections have Utah going to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, (a year removed from the Rose Bowl). USC would be making it to the playoffs to face defending national champion Georgia. That would imply a Trojans win Friday night. Either way, if the game bears any resemblance to the match-up last month, it is likely to be the best of the conference championship weekend.