Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — USC entered the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the winningest program in conference history.
The glitz and glamour of Hollywood served as the backdrop of one of the most iconic venues in all of sports, and the conference's premier team got the honor to host the inaugural conference game of the Pac-12 against upstart Utah on Sept. 10, 2011.
Utah came into the newly expanded Pac-12 riding the "BCS buster" momentum that included two undefeated seasons, and the program had an optimistic belief the team could have similar success in the Pac-12 as it did in the Mountain West, albeit naively.
Former Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott awarded the teams a special football to honor the inaugural matchup at halftime as a new era of college football and conference expansion were settled.
It was a new beginning.
Little did anyone know that day — though it shouldn't have been a surprise when a last-second field goal attempt by Utah turned into a game-sealing win for USC — that the matchup between USC and Utah would go on to be one of the more exciting and highly-anticipated games in the Pac-12 over the next 12 seasons.
There have been times when one of the team's is clearly better on the field, but most seasons the games were close as the two programs fought for South Division supremacy en route to a conference championship appearance. The Trojans hold a 7-5 record against Utah in the Pac-12 era, though a 2020 season that few, arguably, count narrows that to 6-5.
The former South Division — until the start of the 2022 season when the conference went away from divisions — went through the USC-Utah matchup. In the last seven seasons, six division titles went to either USC or Utah — in 2015 the two teams were named co-South division champions — and the lone season outside the two was Colorado in 2016.
"From my time being here, it was always: 'We have to beat SC,'" Utah wide receiver Solomon Enis said on The Utah Checkdown podcast. "... It really came out to either Utah and USC when it came to the South. It was always that game people were waiting to see.
"I think it just comes down to when USC plays Utah, you know it's going to either be close or it's going to be a dog fight. We love being in that situation; I guarantee you they do, too. But the thought that we already played them and we're playing them again in the championship, it's exciting. I think it's going to be a dog fight and I'm looking forward to it."
On Friday night (6 p.m. MST, FOX), the two programs have a chance to raise the stakes in their often rivalry-like matchup. No. 4 USC enters as a 3-point favorite, according to the betting odds, and a College Football Playoff spot on the line — to say nothing of a potential Heisman Trophy bid for quarterback Caleb Williams.
No. 11 Utah, however, is playing with house money as it looks to defend its first Pac-12 title and reach its second-consecutive Rose Bowl appearance. It's also a chance for Utah to flip the script on USC and show how that 12 years later, the conference runs through Kyle Whittingham and the Utes.
With the stakes at an all-time high in this series, there's no better scene than Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas to settle the "dog fight" of a series.
"Big challenge this week. We find ourselves in a very similar situation as last year, playing a team we already beat one time in league play; and as we all know, very difficult to beat a really good team twice, but that's what our challenge is," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "SC is ultra talented, very efficient on offense."
For Utah, there's a familiarity aspect to being in the Pac-12 championship; Friday is the team's fourth championship game appearance in five seasons. That familiarity, especially in Allegiant Stadium, is what Whittingham hopes will be a factor in his team not overlooking the moment.
"I think it helps a lot," he said. "I mean, the stage shouldn't be too big. 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 — or are going to their fourth one. Experience in that regard is a good thing. I think that that will play in our favor."
Linebacker Karene Reid echoed his head coach, saying: "I think it just brings more confidence because it's more familiar to us. We're not gonna be like deer in the headlights. We've been there before."
Though the teams played in October, where Utah edged out USC in a 43-42 win, it's a reset to everything that's happened this season. And with a sellout expected at Allegiant Stadium, there's no better setting to determine the top team in the Pac-12.
Expect another battle between the two teams that share a unique bond over the last 12 seasons.