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Picking the Pac — Championship Week

It’s the Utes versus the Huskies for all the marbles.

NCAA Football: Washington at Utah Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, when the Huskies are involved in the true game of the week, I pick the conference’s next-best matchup as my featured contest, and save my thoughts on Washington’s game for the Dawg Pound prediction article. Since there’s only one other game on tap this week, though, that seems like a bit of a copout. Thus, you’re getting my take on the Pac-12 title game a bit early today. Also on deck is the Big Game, which takes place Saturday after having been delayed a couple of weeks ago due to air quality issues stemming from the recent California wildfires.

Ryan’s 2018 record straight up / against the spread: 63-26 / 35-42-3

Game of the Week

No. 17 Utah Utes vs. No. 11 Washington Huskies (Friday, 5 p.m., FOX)

Washington -5.5, o/u 45.0

There’s a reason this game jumped two points almost immediately in UW’s favor after the Huskies opened as a field-goal favorite. Washington has out-recruited Utah per the 247 Sports rankings in each of the past five classes, especially in the two most recent classes of 2017 and 2018 (UW and Utah’s average class rankings for that stretch are 19 and 33, respectively), and played one of their best games of the season last week in knocking off a top-10 Wazzu squad in Pullman by a margin of two scores. And that’s to say nothing of Washington’s 21-7 mid-September victory over the Utes in Salt Lake City.

In addition, the Utes are down their starting quarterback and running back, and just last week needed a huge rally in the second half to overcome a 20-0 halftime deficit in order to beat a BYU team that Washington dispatched with ease.

So why, then, are the Utes afforded a 42.8 percent chance to earn the win (according to ESPN’s Football Power Index matchup predictor), and with it their first Pac-12 championship since joining the conference in 2011? In short, Utah’s defense is playing at a level just short of elite, averaging 20.9 points per game against Power Five opponents and having held all but one Pac-12 team (Arizona State) to under 30 points. In addition, quarterback Jason Shelley has led the Utes to wins in each of his starts since Tyler Huntley’s injury sidelined him for the year, and has thrown three touchdowns and zero interceptions while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt during that stretch. Likewise, Armand Shyne has stepped up admirably in place of the injured Zach Moss, having rushed for 276 yards and three scores in Utah’s last three games.

Considering how well Washington’s own defense has played this year, it seems to me that the Huskies’ best chance to win this one comes by stacking the box and forcing Shelley to beat the vaunted UW secondary. That matchup would bode particularly poorly for Utah’s leading receiver Britain Covey, who absorbed some of the hardest hits we’ve seen this season from Byron Murphy and JoJo McIntosh. If the Dawgs are able to replicate that defensive performance from September and pair it with an offense operating at full strength with Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin, Trey Adams and Hunter Bryant running at full steam, you have to like Washington’s odds of winning a second conference title in three years and punching their ticket to Pasadena for a date against Ohio State or Michigan. Washington 34, Utah 17.

All the Rest


Stanford Cardinal vs. California Golden Bears (12 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)

Stanford -3.0, o/u 47.0

I picked Cal to score the upset victory against Stanford when I picked this game two weeks ago before it was delayed, and nothing I’ve seen in the time since has given me a reason to rethink that decision. Justin Wilcox has put together one of the program’s most exciting seasons in years, highlighted by a signature upset victory over the Huskies, and ending the regular season with a win over the Cardinal for the first time since 2009 would propel the Golden Bears into bowl season and the early signing period with the program’s strongest momentum in years. Meanwhile, Stanford has dropped four of their last seven, and has surrendered more than 40 points in three of their last four. Cal 20, Stanford 14.