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Picking the Pac, Championship Week: Ute-SC

Utah-USC rematch set to determine bowl matchups

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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Utah vs. USC, USC -2.5

The Pac-12 Championship Game is a lot more fun when you have something riding on it. While the Huskies don’t play this weekend, their bowl fate rests in the result of Friday’s USC vs. Utah rematch. A USC win would likely put the Trojans in the CFP, opening up a Rose Bowl slot for the Dawgs over a four-loss Utah squad. A Utes win would push UW down the pecking order, most likely to the Alamo Bowl. Before the season, an Alamo Bowl against Sark’s Texas would’ve sounded like a dream come true. But after double-digit wins and a surge to end the year, it would feel like a step down from what could have been.

Although this game is a rematch, the first game was so close that it’s hard to derive too much meaning from it. The Utes scored in the last minute and successfully went for two to win the game in regulation. A two-point conversion is always a bit of a crapshoot and I wouldn’t say that failure to convert makes Utah an intrinsically worse team than they are for having made the conversion.

Another reason that the first game doesn’t tell the full story is the presence of Tavion Thomas. While Thomas was not very impactful in the first game, USC’s biggest weakness all year has been defending the run. Utah rounded into form late in the season with Thomas taking on a bigger role. He has left the team to prepare for the NFL draft. As solid as Micah Bernard and Cam Rising are with their legs, Thomas can be a game-changer and losing him is a blow to Utan’s game planning.

On the other side, Utah’s defense has improved through the year after an uncharacteristically mediocre start to the year. They have ascended to 21st nationally in defensive EPA and 22nd against the pass. USC has the personnel to run the ball effectively and might want to lean into that option, especially with Stanford transfer Austin Jones rounding into form late in the year. If Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams try to hard to make his Heisman case, Utah’s star DB Clark Phillips could cause problems. If USC takes what is there for the offense, they should be able to score enough points to win.

I would not be surprised to see Utah win, and they might even be the better team It’s hard to disentangle my desire to see UW make the Rose Bowl from my analysis of the matchup. Nonetheless, USC has so much on the line that I have to believe they will bring their best effort.

USC 42 - Utah 35