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'We love that role': Whittingham sees Utah as underdog in title game against USC


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SALT LAKE CITY β€” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham got a little smile β€” a smirk, it seemed β€” on his face as he answered a question about USC being favored in the Pac-12 championship game.

The Trojans are in position to make the College Football Playoff and its quarterback, Caleb Williams, is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy for his performance this season. To those inside the Utah football program, the game on Friday (6 p.m. MST, FOX) in Las Vegas feels like a done deal for those around the country β€” USC will be crowned champions.

"Pretty much everyone has got them winning and going to the playoffs, and Caleb winning the Heisman, and that's already been kind of talked about," Whittingham said Monday morning. "We love that role. We love the chip on our shoulder, the nobody giving us the chance. We seem to thrive in that capacity and in that world."

USC has everything to lose and Utah knows it; and Whittingham isn't afraid to play the underdog role to motivate his team going into the game.

It's a role Whittingham played early on in Utah's tenure in the Pac-12, when his team actually was the underdog looking to "slay a giant" on a big stage. Utah didn't have the pedigree that many other teams in the conference had or the prestige of being a team that won several national championships.

Utah was a small fish in a much bigger pond than it had ever been in before joining the Pac-12.

But 12 years after its inclusion in the conference, Utah has become the hunted and not the hunter β€” even if the team needed four games to go its way in the final week of the regular season to be in the conference title game. Utah was the team picked to win the conference and repeat as Pac-12 champions.

Utah may, technically, be the underdog in the betting world β€” USC is a 3-point favorite to win the game β€” but the Utes have been to four of the last five Pac-12 championship games and are the reigning champs.

Many advanced stats predictors even have the Utes as the favored team β€” ESPN's Football Power Index gives Utah a 61.2% chance to beat the Trojans, while FiveThirtyEight has it as a modest 52% chance.

So while Whittingham loves the disrespect, Utah is arguably the team others in the conference are trying to beat. And none more than USC, who fell short on an undefeated season because Cam Rising converted a 2-point try to beat the Trojans in Salt Lake City in October.

Utah remains one of the most consistent teams in the Pac-12 over the last five seasons and has many around the country hoping to see the Utes raise the trophy for a second season. Some want Utah for selfish reasons, others want it in spite of the Trojans.

Just ask Oklahoma fans, who want USC head coach Lincoln Riley to fail after he left the Sooners to move to Los Angeles; or Alabama and Ohio State, who remain on the bubble of the playoff line and need the Trojans to lose. There's also those within the Pac-12 that want to see USC lose because it spurned the conference in search for greener pastures with its inclusion in the Big Ten in 2024.

Does Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff really want to hoist the trophy up to USC players after it already deemed the conference a secondary destination?

Outside of USC, there's at least one team that wants the Trojans to win on Friday, and that's Washington β€” the same team that Utah cheered for to win on Saturday to send the Utes back to Las Vegas. A USC win would all but guarantee a playoff spot and likely grant Washington a Rose Bowl bid.

Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer told media Monday morning that USC is "definitely a team we're rooting for." He added: "I guess I look at it this way: We did Utah a favor already."

Utah may be the underdog on paper, but there's a lot more around the country that want to see USC fall flat on its face. But any added motivation can't be a bad thing and Whittingham is looking for any edge he can get to help his team come out on top again in Las Vegas.

His team, after all, has a handful of players that have been to every Pac-12 title game in program history and has a consistent base of players on the roster that have been in the big-game moments.

"To be able to be in that game now for four years running is a real testament to our football team, the talent level of players that we have in the program, just how dedicated they are to what they do and how bought in they are," Whittingham said.

"I think it helps a lot. I mean, the stage shouldn't be too big. I mean, we've got guys that have been there and done that. And, like we said, a handful of guys that have been to four of them now β€” or are going to their fourth one. And experience in that regard is a good thing. I think that that will play in our favor."

Whittingham may love to be in its current role, but that's because he's playing with house money.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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