USC has a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff in Lincoln Riley's debut season. Utah can win consecutive Pac-12 championships. The stakes are sky-high for both teams when they battle in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game on Friday night.
The No. 11 Utes (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) traveled a long winding road to clinch their fourth title game appearance in five seasons. Utah crushed Colorado 63-21 on Saturday and then locked up a return trip to Las Vegas with victories by Washington and Oregon State later in the day. Going into this game, the Utes are coming off one of their best all-around performances of the season. Utah dismantled Colorado for four quarters, rolling up a season-high 662 yards on offense while limiting the Buffaloes to 185 yards and 12 first downs.
The No. 4 Trojans (11-1, 8-1) vaulted into the fourth spot in this week's College Football Playoff Rankings after dispatching Notre Dame 38-27 in their regular-season finale. That snapped a four-game skid against the Irish. USC never trailed after holding Notre Dame scoreless in the first quarter. The Irish eventually got on track offensively but coughed up a costly pair of turnovers in the second half. USC totaled 436 yards and 23 first downs while averaging 7.1 yards per play and only punted twice.
Utah handed USC its only loss of the season, edging the Trojans 43-42 in Salt Lake City on Oct. 15. The Trojans lead the all-time series 13-8.
Pac-12 Football Championship Game: No. 12 Utah vs. No. 4 USC
When Utah Has the Ball
Cameron Rising seems to have regained the form he showed in the Utes' earlier comeback win over USC. Rising picked apart Colorado's defense from the start. He completed 89 percent of his passes and threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns before resting the entire second half. Dalton Kincaid was Rising's favorite target, racking up 102 yards and a touchdown on five catches. USC is familiar with the damage Rising and Kincaid can do as a duo on offense. Rising threw for a career-high 415 yards against the Trojans earlier this season while Kincaid tallied a career-high 234 yards on 16 catches. Both players were catalysts to Utah eventually dealing USC its only regular-season loss. It is uncertain if Kincaid will be at full strength after he got injured on his touchdown catch against Colorado, but Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said he expects him to play.
Utah showcased the future at running back against Colorado. Tavion Thomas left the team to prepare for the 2023 NFL Draft following the loss to Oregon. Former quarterback Ja'Quinden Jackson stepped in and ran for a career-high 117 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 carries. Micah Bernard added 91 yards on 12 carries, and Jaylon Glover chipped in 62 yards on 13 touches. Bernard and Glover each rushed for a touchdown as well. Utah will likely utilize all three backs on Friday to take some pressure away from Rising.
When USC Has the Ball
Caleb Williams is a serious candidate to win the Heisman Trophy and his performance against Notre Dame offers the latest evidence building his case. Williams threw for 232 yards and a touchdown while completing 82 percent of his passes against the Irish and also ran for three other touchdowns. He completed a pass to nine different receivers in the game. Strong performances are the expectation for Williams, who has totaled 27 touchdowns and 2,495 yards on offense over his past six games. Williams has 4,063 yards of total offense on the season and needs 163 yards to pass Sam Darnold and set a new USC single-season record for total offense. If top receivers Mario Williams and Jordan Addison — both of whom have battled late-season injuries — are at full strength, they will help him easily surpass that mark.
Austin Jones has emerged as a star in the backfield since stepping into a larger role with the injury to Travis Dye. Jones is coming off the best game of his career, piling up 154 yards on 25 carries against Notre Dame. It was his third 100-game of the season and the sixth of his career. The senior has totaled 274 yards on the ground over his past two games and is averaging nearly 6.0 yards per carry in that stretch. A third straight 100-yard effort from Jones on Friday could be a difference-maker for USC.
The math is simple for USC — win and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. However, we all know nothing ever comes easy in the Pac-12. Utah has the offensive firepower to match USC, and the Utes' defense has made strides since the two teams met earlier in mid-October. Ultimately, it will come down to health. USC's key playmakers are healthy and productive again. Utah has lingering question marks at key positions because of injuries. That may be a subtle difference-maker for the Trojans late in a close game.
Prediction: USC 34, Utah 31
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– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
*Price as of publication.