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Pick Six Previews: Utah's improved defense to lift team to Pac-12 title over USC


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SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah walked off the field at Autzen Stadium after the loss to Oregon, their path to the Pac-12 championship game seemed virtually impossible.

It was Utah's second conference loss in a crowd of one- and two-loss teams, including Oregon, who now held the head-to-head tiebreaker.

There was one specific combination of outcomes that needed to happen. Utah needed to beat lowly Colorado, which they did in dominating fashion 63-21. Then they needed a trifecta to hit in other Pac-12 rivalry games: UCLA over California, Oregon State over Oregon, and then Washington over Washington State in the Apple Cup.

All three of those were in question late into the second half, but eventually, all three hit.

So here we are, after a roller-coaster season, with Utah earning a spot in the Pac-12 championship game for the fourth time in five years. Before diving into the specific 2022 matchup, I think it's important to look at that feat itself.

Consider that Utah was in the non-AQ Mountain West up until 2010, and in just a decade, Kyle Whittingham and his staff weathered the transition up to Power Five football. They not only survived, but thrived.

The staff excelled at talent identification, team unity, scheme/strategy, player retention, and, of course, player development. Utah is an annual fixture at the top of Pick Six Previews' player development metric, which compares the raw recruiting class ranking to the program's actual NFL draft output. No one in America does it better.

While the 2022 team's playoff goal is out of reach, all other team goals remain on table: defend their Pac-12 title, return to the Rose Bowl — and this time, win it.

The Pac-12 announced that Friday night's title game in Las Vegas (6 p.m. MST, FOX) is officially sold out for the first time in league history, and the matchup also holds the biggest playoff stake with No. 4 USC needing a win to remain in the bracket.

Game Grader

(Opponent-adjusted statistical dominance via Pick Six Previews)

3-year average 2019-21: Utah 68.9 (7th) | USC 57.3 (22nd of 66 Power Five)
2021 season: Utah 69.5 (7th) | USC 45.3 (43rd of 66 Power Five)
2022 season: Utah 70.5 (12th) | USC 74.6 (6th of 66 Power Five)

Utah moved up one spot in 2022 Game Grader from No. 13 to No. 12 after the 42-point win over Colorado. The Utes dominated a one-win Colorado team like they were supposed to, outgained them by 480 yards, and averaged 10 yards per play.

USC enters the game with an 11-1 record, a No. 6 ranking in 2022 Game Grader, and, of course, the No. 4 ranking by the College Football Playoff selection committee. While USC did win the shootout against UCLA, it's worth noting other common opponents ended with very different outcomes: USC beat Oregon State by 3 points and Arizona by 8 — Utah beat them by 26 and 25, respectively.

USC with the ball

(Opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings via Pick Six Previews)

USC offense: 3rd of 66 Power Five
Utah defense: 27th of 66 Power Five

All eyes will be on USC's star quarterback Caleb Williams, who has emerged as the Heisman Trophy favorite heading into the final weekend. Williams is sixth nationally in the all-encompassing QB rating, seventh in yards per attempt, and sixth with 34 passing touchdowns.

Beyond the stat sheet, he has shown elite athleticism and elusiveness in the pocket by extending plays and making crazy highlight reel plays. Williams — and the rest of Lincoln Riley's transfer haul — turned USC into the No. 3 offense in Power Five per Pick Six Previews' opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings.

USC was nearly unstoppable in their first matchup, with the Trojans averaging 8.1 yards per play on Utah.

However, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley rallied his young defense and turned them into another formidable unit as the season progressed. According to those same opponent-adjusted metrics:

First six FBS games: Utah defense was 43rd of 66 Power Five
Last five FBS games: Utah defense was 12th of 66 Power Five

Forcing Williams and the offense into turnovers is a defining key to the game. USC and TCU enter this weekend as the only Power Five teams that have not lost the turnover battle in any game this season. Utah will need to emphasize the "ballhawk" aspect of Scalley's RSNB mantra this week.

Utah with the ball

(Opponent-adjusted, per-play rankings via Pick Six Previews)

Utah offense: 27th of 66 Power Five
USC defense: 58th of 66 Power Five

The October matchup was the "Dalton Kincaid Game," in which Utah's star tight end caught 16 consecutive passes for 234 yards. He was one catch shy of tying the all-time single-game FBS record for tight ends.

Look for USC to key in on Kincaid and attempt to block that from happening again. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is creative enough to get Kincaid some touches, but it will mean more one-on-one opportunities for Utah's wide receivers. This is the matchup that Utah needs to win.

Overall, the USC defense is rated just 58th (of 66) in Power Five, and Utah will be able to move the ball through the air and on the ground. Yes, Tavion Thomas is out, but Utah has shared the carries all year and has a strong stable of runners. A true wild card to watch is freshman quarterback Nate Johnson, who has sprinter speed and has been an effective wrinkle to the offense when on the field.

Utah will move the ball just fine — the key is converting red zone trips into touchdowns. Red zone and short-yardage situations have plagued Utah this season and in past years, but they need to ace these areas Friday night.

Game prediction

Game Grader has this as virtual "pick'em" matchup, and this is the hardest single game I've had to pick all season. Teams that won the regular season matchup are 5-1 in the rematch in the Pac-12 championship. Utah did that last year by smashing Oregon twice in three weeks.

Look for Utah to do it again here in 2022, but it will be a tight-margin game like the October matchup. USC's defense is the worst unit in the game, and Utah's defense has drastically improved statistically since the October matchup.

Consistent with my July prediction: Utah wins the 2022 Pac-12 championship.

Utah 34 | USC 33

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Pick Six PreviewsUtah UtesSportsCollege
Brett Ciancia is the owner of Pick Six Previews, a college football preview magazine graded as the "Most Accurate Season Preview" since 2012 (via Stassen). Ciancia was named a Heisman Trophy voter in 2019 and was invited to the FWAA's All-America Team selection committee in 2020.

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