Pac-12 Championship Prediction and Preview: Oregon vs. USC

Pac-12 Championship Prediction and Preview: Oregon vs. USC

Well... it's a championship game, if nothing else.

The USC Trojans host the Oregon Ducks on Friday in the first on-campus Pac-12 Championship Game since 2013. Santa Clara's Levi Stadium took over hosting duties in 2014, and Las Vegas was set to welcome the conference's top two teams in 2020 before COVID-19 altered plans. COVID-19 has forced plenty of changes to this football season, and a Pac-12 title game in Los Angeles rather than Las Vegas is the least of the examples.

The matchup itself, on the other hand, is utterly bizarre. Two-loss Oregon officially finished as runner-up in the North, but the COVID-19 concerns that canceled the Ducks' de facto divisional title matchup with rival Washington kept the Huskies out of the championship. The Ducks were originally slated to go to LA to play on Saturday against Colorado, with both waiting as alternates in case one of either USC or Washington did not meet roster requirements.

Following its come-from-behind win at UCLA on Saturday, and faced with a short-week turnaround (for the second straight week) and a then-unknown opponent, Trojans head coach Clay Helton said the team would prepare for any scenario. For what it's worth, USC gets to take the Ric Flair path by facing the defending Pac-12 champions: In other words, to be the man, you've got to beat the man.

In a year in which the word "unprecedented" has been overused, it can be avoided altogether for this Pac-12 Championship Game. This isn't the first time in the game's 10-year history that a team failing to win its division went to the championship! All the way back in 2011, the inaugural year of the title game, a 6-6 UCLA team went in place of 10-win USC, which was ineligible for the postseason.

Pac-12 Championship Game: Oregon at No. 13 USC

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. ET

TV: FOX

Spread: USC -3.5

When Oregon Has the Ball

After scoring 35 or more points in each of its first four contests, the bouts of stagnation that lingered for Oregon even in those showings finally caught up to it at Cal. The Ducks scored just 17 points in the loss. Four drives that went into Cal territory yielded a combined three points, including two trips to the red zone that produced nothing.

That Oregon moved the ball but failed to score at Cal is a much different situation than failing to put drives together. What's more, the Ducks had previously avoided the red-zone misfires that plagued much of the Pac-12. But the inability to finish drives could be something to watch against the USC defense. After a rocky start at UCLA, the Trojans buckled down in the second half.

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USC has been strong in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on just 58.3 percent of opponents' 12 combined drives past the 20-yard line. The turnover bug that bit Oregon at Cal cannot make another appearance for the Ducks to repeat as Pac-12 champions, but it's a point to watch on those possessions. USC has improved dramatically from a season ago, when it was one of the nation's worst turnover-generating defenses and now ranks No. 32. Safety Talanoa Hufanga's playmaking has been especially key.

Look for Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough to target tight end Hunter Kampmoyer. USC is at its thinnest at linebacker, and the mid-range presence of a capable pass-catching tight end can give the Trojans fits. Such was the case for the Trojans against UCLA's Greg Dulcich. Attacking the interior to open up the perimeter may be the Ducks' best strategy.

When USC Has the Ball

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's spin on the air raid has flourished at USC. Having a generational wealth of talent at wide receiver, like Amon-Ra St. Brown, certainly helps the cause. St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Drake London are all coming off huge performances and will test an Oregon defense that has been outstanding against the pass. The Ducks have allowed just five touchdowns through the air on the season.

Oregon has been much more vulnerable against the run, a byproduct of youth in the linebacking corps. USC's rushing attack has been inconsistent and it will likely be without leading rusher Vavae Malepeai, who sprained a ligament in his knee in last week's win over UCLA in which he posted 110 rushing yards. Between-the-tackles thumper Markese Stepp figures to have a bigger role against an Oregon defense that plays a similar, aggressive pass-rush style to that of the Bruins.

Meanwhile, the pressure applied to quarterback Kedon Slovis could shape things early. Oregon decimated USC in the Coliseum last November, getting to Slovis for three sacks and pressuring the quarterback into three interceptions.

Final Analysis

Despite its recent skid, Oregon has the talent to beat any opponent in the Pac-12. The issue for the Ducks has been consistency. An Oregon team that puts together a complete 60 minutes will be dangerous, but it just hasn't happened yet.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

USC is similar in that regard, enduring lapses like the third-quarter scoring drought that only ended last week. At the risk of oversimplification, a matchup of the conference's two most talented teams really will come down to avoiding those lapses.

Prediction: USC 34, Oregon 30

Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.