Utah wants to finish what it started a year ago.
The No. 5 Utes (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) are playing for a Pac-12 championship for a second consecutive season. This time, Utah will face No. 13 Oregon at Levi's Stadium on Friday. Not only is a Rose Bowl berth at stake, but the Utes have an even grander prize potentially awaiting them if they can beat the Ducks (10-2, 8-1) for a second consecutive season.
A spot in the College Football Playoff. The chance to truly prove themselves against the nation's best teams is something Utah wants more than anything. First step: finishing unfinished business from a year ago.
"This is the reason we came back," senior safety Julian Blackmon said. "We didn't come back to lose. We came back to win. We came back to finish."
Oregon has had the upper hand, historically, in the series between the two teams. The Ducks lead the series with Utah 22-10. This time, however, Utah is projected to have the edge.
The Utes are favored going into the championship game and it makes complete sense. Utah has the best defense in the Pac-12 by a mile, along with one of the league's most efficient offenses. That's why it is difficult to see the Utes falling short of a Pac-12 title for a second straight season.
5 Reasons Why Utah Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game
1. Elite all-around defense
Utah has always built an identity on having a rugged, physical defense. This season, the Utes have taken that philosophy to a whole new level.
Utah leads the nation and the Pac-12 in rushing defense (56.3 ypg) as opponents are averaging a mere 2.26 yards per carry. The Utes also lead the Pac-12 in total defense (241.6 ypg), scoring defense (11.3 ppg), red zone defense (.700), and pass efficiency defense (107.52). They rank in the top 10 nationally in all three categories.
As a result of such dominant play, Utah's defense has been on the field for 690 plays through 12 games – the fewest defensive plays per game for any FBS team.
"That's a big plus for us, on defense, because we have essentially played two fewer games than everyone else as far as the wear and tear on our guys," Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
2. Versatile rushing attack
Zack Moss is the career leader in several rushing categories at Utah and is truly the engine that makes the offense go. Moss has run for 1,246 yards this season and is the first player for the Utes to have three 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his career. The senior averages 6.2 yards per carry. He leads the Pac-12 in total rushing yards.
As dominant as Moss is, he isn't a one-man wrecking crew in the backfield. Jordan Wilmore, Devin Brumfield, and Devonta'e Henry-Cole have all done well as change-of-pace backs when Moss needs a breather. Utah also has utilized fly sweeps and reverses with receivers Jaylen Dixon and Derrick Vickers, as well as tight end Brant Kuithe, with effective results. Kuithe, in particular, has scored three rushing touchdowns in Utah's last two games.
Oregon is No. 2 in rushing defense behind Utah. The Ducks have allowed 106.1 yards on the ground per game, which ranks 10th nationally. Running the ball won't be easy for the Utes, but they have enough weapons to where getting stops will be equally tough for Oregon.
3. Quarterback efficiency
Utah's return to the Pac-12 Championship Game wouldn't be possible without the consistent efficiency demonstrated by quarterback Tyler Huntley. The senior has taken major steps forward as a leader and playmaker in his final season with the Utes.
Huntley has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate late in the season behind his continued accuracy and efficiency. He has thrown for 2,773 yards while completing 75.5 percent of his passes. Huntley leads the Pac-12 and ranks second nationally in completion percentage. He also tops the league in passing efficiency (188.6) and passing yards per completion (14.75). Huntley has completed 80 percent or more of his passes four times this season.
Forcing Huntley to make bad throws and hurried throws isn't a strategy Oregon can count on working. He has thrown just two interceptions this season while completing 16 TD passes.
4. Championship experience
Utah returned 19 seniors from last year's squad that won the Pac-12 South. The Utes also brought back numerous underclassmen who played big roles both last season and this season. Simply put, this moment will not be too big for Utah.
The Utes were arguably a play or two away from winning it all a year ago with their top running back, starting quarterback, and top receiver all sidelined with injuries. Now with their top players healthy and motivated, slowing down a hungry Utes team is a tall task.
"We definitely want to finish," Moss said. "We don't make any excuses for last year or anything like that. We worked our tails off to get back here and we definitely want to make the most of it this go-around."
5. Underdog mentality
Never underestimate the ability of Whittingham and his staff to make the Utes feel like the entire world disrespects them and is overlooking them on Friday night. Even while Utah has been the hunter instead of the hunted this season, this team has never lost the chip on its shoulder.
Utah coaches and players keep hearing the argument that their team doesn't belong in the College Football Playoff. Pundits, coaches, and fans have furthered a perception that the Utes have beaten a collection of weak opponents to get a top-five ranking and that they wouldn't measure up favorably to the likes of Oklahoma, Alabama, or Baylor in a playoff spot. That's music to the ears of Whittingham who looks for any reason he can to infuse an underdog mentality into his team.
Look no further than BCS busting runs in 2004 and '08 to see how Utah performs when the nation doubts the Utes. Utah is motivated to prove it belongs and that could mean bad news for Oregon.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.