Impressive victories over Michigan and Oregon have positioned Utah as a Pac-12 championship contender. The No. 5 ranked Utes are off to their best start since 2010 and seem to have finally added an efficient offense to their trademark punishing defense.
California is mirroring Utah with its own football renaissance. The No. 22-ranked Bears are 5-0 for the first time since 2007 and looking to move to 6-0 for the first time since winning nine straight to open the 1950 season. A dynamic offense and an opportunistic defense have played an equal role in propelling California to this point.
California leads the overall series 5-4 but Utah has won three of the last four meetings between the two teams. The Utes won the most recent game in 2012, beating the Bears 49-27 after Reggie Dunn tied a single-game NCAA record with two 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns.
College Football Podcast: Week 6 Preview with Tom Dienhart
California at Utah
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Utah -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Who will win the turnover battle?
One driving factor behind California’s success is a defense with a penchant for forcing turnovers. The Bears lead the nation in takeaways, gaining 18 turnovers. California’s eight fumble recoveries rank first among all FBS schools and its 10 interceptions are tied for second nationally. Getting Utah to cough up the ball, however, is easier said than done. The Utes lead the Pac-12 and rank seventh in turnover margin, averaging 1.75 turnovers gained per game. Utah also ranks seventh among FBS schools in scoring defensive touchdowns, with both an interception return and fumble return through four games.
2. Stopping the pressure
Utah quarterback Travis Wilson has enjoyed a fine senior season so far. Wilson has thrown for 513 yards and four touchdowns while completing 68 percent of his passes in eight quarters of action spread over three games. He also has rushed for 200 yards and three scores on 23 carries. One major factor behind those solid numbers is the protection Wilson gets on nearly every down. Utah’s offensive line — led by junior standouts J.J. Dielman and Isaac Asiata — has allowed just one sack in four games. California will test the Utes in their ability to keep Wilson safe. The Bears lead the Pac-12 with 18 total sacks and 3.60 sacks per game.
3. Spreading the wealth
A slew of talented wide receivers have helped California QB Jared Goff emerge as one of the nation’s most dangerous passers. Goff has completed at least one pass to 15 different receivers this season. Six different receivers have caught at least 11 passes for the Bears. Kenny Lawler leads the way with 27 receptions. Lawler leads the Pac-12 with eight touchdown catches and is tied for second in scoring at 9.6 points per game. He has averaged 79.8 receiving yards per game, ranking 3rd in the Pac-12. Lawler also averages 5.4 receptions per game to rank 4th in the league.
California has made a living this season overwhelming teams with an explosive offense and getting turnovers to create short fields. Utah is one team where that strategy won’t work well. The Utes feature their usual bruising defense, coupled with a smash-mouth offense and electrifying special teams play. Utah has the ability to control field position and set the tempo to its liking. It isn’t a fluke that the Utes are a Top-5 team and California won’t have enough points in reserve to stay a step ahead.
Prediction: Utah 38, California 28
— Written by John Coon,who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.