At the most important moment of Utah’s season, coach Kyle Whittingham was a fearless gambler, and the Utes won a trip to Las Vegas this week as a result.
Utah (9-3) faces off with USC (11-1) in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night. It’s a rematch of a classic game on Oct. 15, when Whittingham’s willingness to roll the dice handed the Trojans their only loss.
With less than a minute remaining, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising scored on a 1-yard run to cut USC’s lead to one as Whittingham kept his kicker on the sideline. Rising cashed in by running up the middle for a 2-point conversion and a dramatic 43-42 win in Salt Lake City.
The stakes were high for both teams that night, but they are considerably higher for the Trojans this time. USC is ranked No. 4 in the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings heading into Championship Week.
Trojans coach Lincoln Riley, who inherited a 4-8 team and is one win from reaching the four-team playoff, has scripted a blockbuster in his first season in Los Angeles. Riley rebuilt the roster by starting at the top and bringing sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams with him from Oklahoma. Williams has accounted for 44 touchdowns (34 passing, 10 rushing) while throwing only three interceptions and becoming the Heisman Trophy favorite.
In the first meeting with the Utes, Williams passed for 381 yards and five touchdowns as USC’s offense rolled up 556 total yards. The Trojans led 28-14 late in the second quarter before 12 penalties and numerous defensive breakdowns took a toll and allowed Utah to stage a sensational comeback.
It’s tough to beat a good team twice, and the truth is USC appeared to be the better team in the first matchup. A couple of questionable flags by the officials and a gutsy call by Whittingham made the difference.
Williams, recently totaling 702 yards passing in back-to-back victories over Notre Dame and UCLA, has a hot hand and will be hard to stop. And the Pac-12 would love to put a team in the playoff, so maybe some key calls will go the Trojans’ way.
Pick: USC -3
Four more plays for Saturday:
Kansas State (+2.5) over TCU
Speaking of beating a good team twice, the Horned Frogs appeared to be going down in their first matchup with the Wildcats on Oct. 22. K-State led 28-10 late in the second quarter, but the lead disappeared when its top two quarterbacks went out with injuries and the result was a 38-28 loss. The Wildcats have won three in a row, including an impressive 31-3 blowout at Baylor, behind quarterback Will Howard and running back Deuce Vaughn. TCU (12-0) probably deserves a playoff spot even if it loses a close Big 12 title game in Arlington, Texas, but the playoff committee will be tempted to put in Ohio State or Alabama instead.
LSU (+18) over Georgia
If the Tigers were looking ahead to the SEC title game, they paid for it last week with a 38-23 loss at Texas A&M. Draw a line through that game and ignore it. In coach Brian Kelly’s first year, a nine-win LSU team has overachieved due mostly to the development of quarterback Jayden Daniels and a solid defense that held Alabama out of the end zone for three quarters on Nov. 5. Daniels was hobbled by an ankle injury last week, but Kelly said he’s good to go this weekend in Atlanta. Stetson Bennett has only 16 touchdown passes for the top-ranked Bulldogs, who looked a little shaky in their last two games against Georgia Tech and Kentucky.
North Carolina (+8) over Clemson
The two-loss Tigers have been unimpressive for most of the season and got exposed by Notre Dame and South Carolina. The stubbornness of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to stick with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei has been a costly mistake. Uiagalelei completed 8 of 29 passes for 99 yards in a 31-30 loss to the Gamecocks. Tar Heels star Drake Maye, a redshirt freshman and rising NFL prospect, has 35 touchdown passes with five interceptions and is the team’s leading rusher. Maye is the real deal, and the Uiagalelei hype was phony. Maye’s hometown is Charlotte, N.C., where the ACC title game is being staged.
Purdue (+17) over Michigan
An overpowering ground attack carried the Wolverines to a statement win at Ohio State. Michigan rushed for 252 yards, led by 216 from Donovan Edwards, even with star running back Blake Corum limited to two carries. However, the week prior to playing the Buckeyes, the Wolverines were lucky to beat Illinois 19-17. The Boilermakers, who have a history of pulling major upsets, must hope coach Jim Harbaugh’s team gets caught in an emotional flat spot. Playing with house money, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm will open his whole playbook for sixth-year quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who will start the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis despite leaving the team to grieve the recent death of his older brother.
2-3 against the spread