College Football Playoff still a possibility for Utah; while Oregon looks to land in the Rose Bowl
The Pac-12's preseason favorites in each division held serve throughout 2019. And while the dream of an 11-1 vs. 11-1 showdown setting up a one-game play-in for the College Football Playoff did not come to fruition, the stakes of the Pac-12 Championship Game are higher than they've been in three years.
Utah is the first one-loss team headed to Levi's Stadium since Washington in 2016. The Huskies used a convincing win over Colorado to springboard into the Playoff, marking the last time a Pac-12 team made the final field of four.
Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham is less concerned about style points or impressing the committee than he is winning his first Pac-12 championship. Utah came close a season ago, reaching Levi's Stadium but falling a touchdown short against Washington.
Oregon has been to the mountaintop, but not since 2014. This year's trip to the championship game is the Ducks' first since Marcus Mariota put an exclamation point on his Heisman Trophy resume. A return to the Rose Bowl in Mario Cristobal's second season at the helm would be quite a statement about the return of this program from the depths of 4-8 just three years ago.
Pac-12 Championship: Utah vs. Oregon
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Spread: Utah -6.5
When Utah Has the Ball
Whitingham says that quarterback Tyler Huntley is the central reason Utah is playing for a Rose Bowl at worst. The dual-threat quarterback's contributions as an efficient passer, explosive ball carrier, and locker-room leader have him making a late surge in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Oregon's defense is the best Huntley will have faced all season, so both the stakes and potential payoff are higher. Oregon has intercepted more passes than it has allowed to go for touchdowns (17-to-15), paced by four picks apiece from Verone McKinley III and Jevon Holland.
Of course, a great turnover-creating defense often begins with the ability to stuff the run, and the Ducks thrive in that regard. Led by four-year starting linebacker Troy Dye and his ball-hawking presence, with talented tackle Jordon Scott plugging the middle, Oregon ranks No. 10 nationally against the run; only Utah is better among Pac-12 teams.
Expect Utah to grind hard with Zack Moss, much in the same way Arizona State attacked with Eno Benjamin. Moss, the Pac-12's leading rusher, needs to be able to get into the second level enough to keep the Utes moving and in control of the ball, which is their preferred style of play.
To avoid Oregon loading up the box, look for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to call some deep throws from Huntley early. Utah has a variety of speedy pass-catchers with Bryan Thompson and Demari Simpkins, the latter of whom Ludwig will sometimes use as a ball-carrier. But the emergence of tight end Brant Kuithe has added an additional element to the Utah passing game that Huntley must be able to exploit in order to open the field for Moss.
When Oregon Has the Ball
At plenty of programs around college football, the quarterback is the biggest star. That's the case at Oregon with fourth-year starter and Eugene native Justin Herbert, who made good on his decision to return and pursue a Pac-12 championship. However, Oregon is the rare program where the offensive line starters are stars approaching the level of the quarterback.
Leading the front five is Penei Sewell, the sophomore sensation at tackle who has NFL evaluators salivating. "Since his days in high school, and I'm sure even before that, he's had a super-high football IQ, plays tremendous power and balance and body control," Crisotbal said. "I can honestly say he's the best [lineman] I've been around."
With Sewell helping anchor a talented and experienced front five, Oregon employs a physical offensive style with a balanced focus on the run and pass. The Ducks are somewhat similar to Utah in that regard, opting to complement an outstanding defense with ball control, which includes efficiency from the quarterback. Herbert has thrown just five interceptions all season, although two came in the penultimate weekend loss to Arizona State.
Oregon's front five will face consistent heat from one of the best defensive lines in college football, if not the best. Utah counters Oregon's offensive physicality with a hard-nosed approach that has been the program's defining quality for as long as Whittingham has been at the helm.
Bradlee Anae finished the regular season second in the Pac-12 with 12.5 sacks. With Anae leading the pass rush, Leki Fotu will aim to bottle up the rushing lanes for Oregon ball-carriers CJ Verdell, Travis Dye, and Cyrus Habibi-Likio. The Ducks will have to open the field with a vertical passing attack, and emerging Juwan Johnson may be the best bet. He provides size to complement the perimeter speed of Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson.
Utah has been playing the best football in the Pac-12 since dropping a 30-23 decision at USC on Sept. 20. Utah is steam-rolling opponents by 29 points per game, overwhelming them on defense before delivering the knockout haymaker on offense. The one team to really challenge Utah during this dominant stretch was Washington, a squad with a style similar to that of Oregon.
Oregon has employed a comparable brand of physical offensive football but has done it better than the rival Huskies. Given the talent and similarity in style, the Ducks are undoubtedly the toughest test Utah will face on the season.
A repeat of last year's ugly 10-3 Washington win in the Pac-12 Championship Game — one bereft of offensive touchdowns — is unlikely. Both offenses are too talented to go without a touchdown. However, this will be a slugfest. Utah may not get the style points some suggest it needs to wow the committee, but the Utes have the firepower to ensure at least a Rose Bowl bid once the weekend is over.
Prediction: Utah 27, Oregon 23
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.