The old saying "what a difference a year makes" couldn't be more applicable if it tried when it comes to the USC Trojans football team. Around this time last year, USC didn't even have a head coach and the idea they would be one game away from the College Football Playoff in 2022 would have been laughable, at best. But effective and targeted hires have a funny way of turning things around immediately and that's exactly what head coach Lincoln Riley and his staff have done in Year 1. The only thing standing in Riley's way from his fourth College Football Playoff appearance in six seasons as head coach, and having done it at two different schools in two different conferences, is a win over Utah in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game in Las Vegas' Allegiant Stadium on Friday night.
The crazy part is that starting in 2024, Riley can become the first to ever coach in the playoff with teams from three different conferences, and he won't even have to change schools this time! But that's getting ahead of ourselves. In order to make this playoff, Riley and his team will have to find a way to take down the defending Pac-12 champions, something they were unable to do back on Oct. 15. The Utes won the first meeting, 43-42 thanks to a late touchdown and successful two-point conversion. The Trojans came agonizingly close to taking down Utah in Salt Lake City and here are five reasons why they'll be successful Friday night in Sin City.
5 Reasons Why USC Will Get Revenge and Beat Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game
1. Utah isn't very good away from home
While Utah is good against USC in an overall sense, having gone 7-5 against the Trojans since joining the Pac-12, the Utes aren't near as unbeatable away from Salt Lake City. All three of their losses this season have come on the road (Florida, UCLA, Oregon) and chances are the crowd in Allegiant Stadium on Friday will tilt in USC's favor. It should feel enough like a home game to neutralize the effect that Utah enjoys from the MUSS. The Mighty Utah Student Section will still be present, but the Spirit of Troy should enjoy an equal balance of enthusiasm.
2. USC can repeat its offensive performance with ease, can Utah?
Utah doesn't really score in abundance on a regular basis. This isn't to say they can't score in bunches, as evidenced by the 43 points the Utes put up in the first meeting. But on the whole, Utah has been held under 30 points three times while USC has failed to reach that level just once. The Trojans also have gone over 40 on nine different occasions while the Utes have scored that many six times. Simply put, if USC does what it usually does on offense, Utah may have a hard time keeping up, especially on a neutral field.
3. Caleb Williams is unstoppable
If Williams winds up winning the Heisman Trophy (which more and more people are projecting), his first performance against Utah will have had a hand in it. Even though his completion percentage may have been down in that game (59.5 vs. around 70 percent against other AP Top 25 teams), the other numbers – namely 381 passing yards and five touchdowns – spoke volumes. Additionally, per Pro Football Focus, Williams has attempted 106 passes under pressure and has yet to throw an interception. And remember, he did all of his damage (adding 57 rushing yards for good measure) against the Utes in one of the toughest road environments to play in the country.
4. Cameron Rising may go off, but he's almost sure to make a mistake
The problem with having a quarterback like Caleb Williams on the other side of you for a marquee matchup is that almost everyone discounts the other signal-caller's abilities, almost by default. Rising may not be Williams, but he was the Pac-12's first-team quarterback last season and has put together another solid season while helping Utah get back to the championship game. Rising doesn't throw many interceptions, only seven on the year, but six of those have come on the road. USC's defense has thrived on takeaways, including 19 interceptions, and will no doubt look to exploit Rising's tendency to make more mistakes when he's not playing in Salt Lake City. Also, four of his seven picks were against AP Top 25 teams, so he hasn't been quite as sharp when the competition stiffens. Unless the Trojans struggle to move the ball and score points, look for the defense to continue playing its aggressive, risk-taking style and try and rattle Rising into some mistakes.
5. Williams' legs could be the x-factor
Leading rusher Troy Dye's season-ending injury was a blow to this offense, but his effectiveness and production took quite a bit of the load off of Williams. It was a wise strategy as it helped keep Williams healthy but it also may have masked his running ability somewhat. An absolute nightmare in the red zone (10 rushing TDs), he's only averaging 3.6 yards per carry even though he's capable of doing more damage on the ground. But when you have an arm that is second to none with an ability to stretch the field that's eerily reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes, it makes sense that he hasn't had to worry about making big plays happen with his legs. But with Dye no longer an option to handle the lion's share of the carries, there's no reason to not call on Williams to try and open up running lanes for Austin Jones and Raleek Brown. Lincoln Riley has somewhat hidden this part of Williams' game all season, but there's no point in holding anything back now.
— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.