Priority No. 1 for Utah football in Las Vegas: Smell the Roses.
For a third consecutive true regular season, the Utes (9-3, 8-1 Pac-12) represent the South in the Pac-12 Championship Game. They are 0-2 in those opportunities that have had them so close to the program's first-ever Rose Bowl berth, but have the pieces to finally break through in 2021.
It's a mostly new-look Utah group this compared to the 2018 and 2019 teams, but certainly lessons resonate.
"We only have a handful of guys that were in those games," Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham noted in his Monday press conference. "So, nothing [in terms of carryover] other than that we certainly need to play better than we did in those two years."
Utah can draw on a much more recent effort for inspiration: Its rout of the same Oregon team it faces on Friday on Nov. 20.
The Utes' 38-7 win provided a receipt for 2019, when Oregon's 37-15 title game defeat of Utah prevented the Tyler Huntley-led team from appearing in the College Football Playoff.
As a result of Utah's win two weeks ago, there is no playoff appearance at stake on Friday night in Allegiant Stadium, but the Rose Bowl is no consolation prize. This is historically the biggest honor for any Pac-12 Conference member.
5 Reasons Why Utah Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game
1. Physical defense
The identity of the Pac-12 has changed over the last half-decade or so, with programs moving away from the high-scoring, hurry-up offensive approach built on outscoring opponents in favor of a more defensive-oriented approach. Utah's rolled with that kind of look for as long as it's been in the conference, and the Utes have mastered it.
Utah ranks in the top 30 nationally against both the run and pass, and ranks top 20 in total yards allowed. With a 3.7-yard per carry yield on the ground, the Utes will make Oregon grind for every inch it can gain and put the game on Anthony Brown's ability to pass.
That strategy worked out well in Salt Lake City, where Utah held the Ducks to just 63 rushing yards and forced Brown into 17-of-35 passing. The timing with which the Oregon quarterback had to operate was limited, too, the result of a consistent pass rush. With Mika Tafua and Junior Tafuna up front, Utah is built to win at the point of attack in a way few of Oregon's opponents have been.
2. Offense on the Rising
Since turning over quarterbacking duties to Cameron Rising during the non-conference matchup with San Diego State, the Utah offense completely turned upside down for the better.
Rising has been stellar, throwing 17 touchdowns against just three interceptions. He combines heady play with a big arm, giving Utah the ability to go deep when defenses load up against the multifaceted rushing attack.
And when it comes to the run, Rising is a threat in the vein of Huntley, averaging 6.4 yards per carry with five rushing touchdowns.
3. Running back depth
Much of the talk coming into this Pac-12 season as it pertained to running backs focused on Oregon's depth. But with the midseason injury of the outstanding CJ Verdell, Utah has taken over as arguably the richest Pac-12 team at that position.
Tavion Thomas emerged about a third of the way through the regular season to become one of the best ball carriers in the nation. He's averaging almost six yards per carry as Utah's every-down back, and has scored 18 rushing touchdowns.
Thomas' consistency sets the tone, while TJ Pledger might be the most explosive back in the conference. His 7.1-yard per carry average provides the Utes with a change-of-pace element that makes their run game particularly dangerous.
4. Lineup status
It's an unfortunate reality, but Oregon comes into this Pac-12 Championship Game especially banged up. In addition to the loss of Verdell on offense, the Ducks have been down Bennett Williams, Justin Flowe and Dru Mathis on defense.
The injuries have worn on Oregon throughout the season. One of the most critical absences, though, was that of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead during the loss at Stanford.
The Ducks might still be in the playoff hunt were it not for him missing that game for health reasons. As rumors of Moorhead taking the head-coaching vacancy at Akron swirl, there's a possible impact on an offense that's had to overcome quite a bit of challenges throughout 2021.
5. Third time's a charm?
Although Whittingham downplayed the significance of playing in two prior Pac-12 Championship Games, Utah has been on a steady trajectory throughout its 10 years in the conference.
The Utes started off struggling its first few years, began contending for the division in the mid-2010s, and finally broke through to win the South at the end of the decade. They're now positioned to be the standard-bearer and advance to their first-ever Rose Bowl.
With stars like linebacker Devin Lloyd leading the defense, a resurgent offense that's become arguably the Pac-12's best, and one of the top coaches in the nation, Utah is primed for a historic win in Las Vegas on Friday night.
Podcast: Championship Weekend Preview and Predictions