The Oregon Ducks will step into the role of College Football Playoff spoiler as they take on the Utah Utes for the Pac-12 championship at Levi's Stadium on Friday night. Oregon cruised to the Pac-12 North Division championship with an 8-1 mark (10-2 overall) in conference play. The Ducks were in prime position for a potential spot in the playoff until a 31-28 loss at Arizona State back on Nov. 23. That game was a prime example of how hard it is for any team in the Pac-12 to go through a nine-game conference schedule without a loss.
Oregon is about a 6.5-point underdog heading into Friday night’s battle with Utah and will be looking to atone for a 32-25 loss last year in Salt Lake City. The Ducks still lead the all-time series 22-10. This game on Friday night will be the game of the year in the conference. It also, without question will pit the two best teams in the league, which should lead to it being one of the most competitive games during Championship Week.
5 Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game
1. QB Justin Herbert
This will be another opportunity in the national spotlight for Herbert to make a big-time statement about his NFL draft stock. Herbert has completed 67.5 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,140 yards, 31 touchdowns, and five interceptions heading into Friday night. Last week, Herbert completed 18 of 30 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in Oregon's 24-10 win over Oregon State in the latest installment of the Civil War. This so-so performance combined with the two interceptions he threw in the crushing loss to Arizona State should have Herbert plenty motivated to put on a show on Friday night. Look for Herbert to get the ball in the hands of top targets Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd early and often to try and get Utah's secondary on its heels right away.
2. Offensive line experience
This battle in the trenches is for grown men only as the Ducks have the most experienced offensive line in the country, one that returned 153 career starts coming into this season. This unit led by seniors Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton won't be intimidated by Utah's defensive front. Remember Oregon opened its season against Auburn, which has one of the best defensive lines in the nation. One of the keys on Friday night will be the Ducks' ability to control the line of scrimmage. Oregon needs to find a way to put up at least 100 yards on the ground with leading rusher C.J. Verdell (963 yards, 5 TDs) leading the way. It doesn't have to be a dominating effort but just enough to keep the Utes honest on defense and allow Justin Herbert the time to find open receivers.
3. Defense has something to prove on the big stage
Overall, Oregon has put up good defensive numbers this season. The Ducks are allowing 15.8 points, 331.3 yards per game, and are plus-11 in turnover margin. If you take a deeper dive into the defense's performance in the second half of the season, it's not hard to see where the Ducks had some issues against Washington, Washington State, and Arizona State. All three of those teams put up more than 30 points on Oregon. Utah's Tyler Huntley is going to be the best quarterback the Ducks' defense has seen this season but this group also should be ready and able to rise to the challenge. Keeping Huntley in the pocket and forcing him to win the game with his arm along with producing some takeaways will be important. In the 56-24 win over USC back in early November, Oregon forced four turnovers, which contributed quite a bit to the eventual rout.
4. Special teams
The Ducks swung the momentum of the Civil War last week with a 98-yard kickoff return by Mykael Wright, which gave them a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter that they wouldn't relinquish. Wright has made the most of his seven kickoff returns in 2019, as he's brought back two of them for scores and is averaging 45.4 yards per return. Javon Holland has the ability to be a factor in the punt return game as he has a long of 81 yards this season and is averaging 17 yards per return. The ability to steal some field position in the return game will be a game-changer for Oregon.
5. Unfinished business
One of the biggest reasons why quarterback Justin Herbert and linebacker Troy Dye came back for their senior seasons was to win a championship. While the College Football Playoff is no longer a realistic option, a Pac-12 championship is there for the taking for this senior class. The Utes have the experience edge in this matchup having played in last year's title game, losing 10-3 to Washington. The underdog Ducks come into this game with less pressure than Utah, although a trip to the Rose Bowl is on the line. And the combination of being an underdog and a senior class looking to finish the job will be enough to help send Oregon to Pasadena, and end the Utes' playoff chances in the process.
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.