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Patrick Kinahan: It's a stretch to label Utah as an underdog against USC

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Kyle Whittingham sees it, nobody believes the Utes can beat the mighty Trojans, who likely are one win away from earning a berth into the four-team national playoff. Along the way, he notes that USC quarterback Caleb Williams has virtually wrapped up winning the Heisman Trophy.

"Pretty much everyone has got them winning and going to the playoffs," Whittingham said, "and Caleb winning the Heisman. And that's already been kind of talked about."

Yes, Christmas has come early for the Utes. Give the Trojans the trophy already, for goodness sakes.

"We love that role," Whittingham added. "We love the chip on our shoulder, the nobody gives us the chance. We seem to thrive in that capacity and in that world."

Yes, they do. One problem, though, this isn't 2008 anymore.

Back then, the Utes beat fourth-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to culminate a 13-0 season. Under the archaic format at that time, Utah didn't play in a Bowl Championship Series conference and have a chance at the national championship game.

Florida beat Oklahoma — both teams finished 12-1 — in the BCS championship game. The Utes finished second behind Florida in final Associated Press Top 25 poll, which wasn't a part of the BCS system.

"I know where I'm voting us. I'm voting us No. 1. End of story," Whittingham said after the Sugar Bowl.

The disrespect card was alive and well during Utah's time in the Mountain West, but it's hard to still roll with it considering the Utes are playing in the Pac-12 championship game for the fourth time in five seasons.

For Whittingham, it's actually the fourth consecutive season playing with the Rose Bowl on the line. He vigorously insists the COVID-shortened 2020 season, during which the Utes played only five games, doesn't count.

Go ahead and view tradition-rich USC as Goliath, but it's a stretch to label Utah as David. Consider that the Utes were the preseason favorite to repeat as Pac-12 champions and already handed the Trojans their only loss this year.

Fact is, national pundits almost always lavish Whittingham with praise. For sure, with its assembly line of NFL talent, Utah no longer is the overachieving program buried out in the middle of nowhere.

In a 2021 listing by Pro Football Focus, Whittingham was ranked as the ninth-best coach in college football. The Athletic this past August included him with the likes of Ryan Day (Ohio State), Lincoln Riley (USC), Kirby Smart (Georgia) and Dabo Swinney (Clemson). All of them ranked below Nick Saban, who lost to Whittingham in the Sugar Bowl.

The Trojans, who are a 3-point favorite, have a 47% chance to win the championship game, according to FiveThirtyEight. ESPN's Football Power Index lists Utah's odds of winning at 61.8%.

Nevertheless, Whittingham is going to search for and highlight any and every perceived sign of disrespect. If all the love for USC wasn't enough, he banged on the theory that Utah backed into this week's championship game.

The football gods did smile on Saturday on the Utes, who needed Oregon State and Washington to beat Oregon and Washington State, respectively, to win a three-team tiebreaker. To no surprise, Whittingham's defense of his team was unprompted.

"Some people say, well, you backdoored your way into the championship," he said. "No, we won the games we needed to win to get there. I don't know what backdoor means. We won seven games, and the right seven games, to get into the championship."

Never change, coach, even if the evidence indicates otherwise.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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