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Is Utah for real ... or just a Cinderella?

Is Utah material for the College Football Playoff? Or just a solid team that bullied a soft conference and weak non-league opponents?

How you answer that question will likely determine how you’re betting Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game against Oregon in Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m. ET, ABC) and the position you’re taking in debates about whether the Utes deserve serious consideration for the Final Four. 

It’s easy to cherry-pick gaudy stats that make Utah look like a juggernaut. But it’s also easy to focus on litmus tests that suggest Utah would struggle against national powers. 

Regular readers know VSiN respects the predictive value of litmus tests over the ability to run up the score on weak opponents. Let’s quickly review what happened to Utah against the two best Power-Rated teams it faced.

— Utah (-3.5) lost 30-23 at USC in late September. The Utes had the misfortune of face-planting in front of a large Friday night TV audience. Utah lost yards-per-play 7.1 to 5.8 and third downs 50% to 38% while committing a stunning 16 penalties for 120 yards. This happened largely against USC’s third-string quarterback, Matt Fink, who replaced starter Kedon Slovis early in the game. 

— Utah (-3) won 33-28 at Washington in early November. This was a much cleaner performance, winning yards-per-play 5.9 to 5.0 and third downs 56% to 38%. Only three penalties for the Utes. However, this win lost some luster when Washington could manage only a 4-5 record in Pac-12 play, 7-5 overall. Coach Chris Petersen stepped down after the season, citing anxiety. 

So Utah lost to a third-string quarterback on an 8-4 team and beat a 7-5 foe in the process of a meltdown.

It’s helpful for handicapping the Pac-12 title tilt that Oregon also played on the road at USC and Washington. The Ducks (-3.5) toppled the Trojans 56-24 and beat the Huskies 35-31 as a field goal favorite. Interesting that Oregon was more impressive against identical point spreads.

Quite the adjustment from perceived market equality to Utah laying -6.5 on a neutral field! 

Yes, the Utes are showing better recent form than the Ducks. They’re not drawing sharp betting interest at that price. Wise guys would have driven the line to the key number of 7 earlier this week if the favorite offered value at -6.5. Clearly, sharps are waiting to take Oregon 7 (or more) if square interest on the “TV favorite” lifts the line before kickoff.  

If you think disrespected Cinderella Utah has a chance to make history, you’re better off starting a rolling money-line parlay Friday. At likely -240 odds, you could risk $100 to win about $42 (or anything in that ratio) and then, if the Utes get a bid, reinvest your stake plus the points or at big money lines in the national semifinals and finals.

If you think Utah’s a pretender, you’re probably already on the Ducks.

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