When USC went all out to convince Lincoln Riley to leave Oklahoma for the sunny skies of Los Angeles, they did so with Friday night’s game in mind.
In his first year as head coach of the Trojans, Riley has USC one game away from its first appearance in the College Football Playoff and back as one of college football's premier programs.
“He is an elite master of pulling together all aspects of a college football operation to a point that I have rarely seen in this business,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said of Riley, according to the L.A. Times. “He’s got an incredible sense, in his gut and his heart, that never fails him associated with [making] decisions. I think that’s why he’s an elite coach and an elite leader.”
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But the return of USC – and the Pac-12 conference – is not yet complete.
The Utah Utes and the Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas, Nevada, stand in the way.
No. 11 Utah (9-3) and No. 4 USC (11-1) will kick off Friday at 8 p.m. ET at Allegiant Stadium in a game that will have all of college football watching with major playoff implications at play.
It’s pretty simple for the Trojans – win and you’re in. Lose and you’re at the mercy of the committee.
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The Trojans head into the game winners of five in a row after defeating back-to-back ranked teams in UCLA and Notre Dame.
Utah comes in as the only team to hand USC a loss this season, a 43-42 win over the Trojans in Week 7.
It was a game that USC led most of the way until the fourth quarter, when Utah scored a touchdown and converted a two-point conversion with 0:48 seconds left in the game.
The Utes won’t be finding their way into the CFP, but they can become Pac-12 champions for the second consecutive year while spoiling USC’s dream season.
“Well, you know pretty much everyone's got them winning already and going to the playoffs and Caleb winning the Heisman, and you know that's already kind of been talked about,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said this week, according to 247 Sports. “So, we love that role. We love the chip on [our] shoulder, nobody giving us a chance, and we seem to thrive in that capacity.”
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In their Week 7 game, Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid had 16 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown. Kincaid was injured in the second half of the Utes' Week 13 game against Colorado but is expected to play.
“We expect him to play,” Whittingham said Monday, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s not a guarantee, but we’ll see what happens.”
Kincaid leads Utah in receptions (66), receiving yards (650) and receiving touchdowns (8).
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He’ll be needed in order to keep up with Caleb Williams and the high-powered USC offense.
The Trojans’ offense enters Friday night’s game fifth in the country in yards (506.6) and third in points per game (42.5).
Leading the attack is Williams, the quarterback who has suddenly become the Heisman Trophy favorite.
Williams is seventh in the country with 3,712 passing yards, tied for sixth in touchdown passes (34), and he has just four interceptions on the season. He’s added 351 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground, extending plays with his feet and frustrating defenses across the conference.
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“He’s been great every game. Show me a game where he’s not great,” Whittingham said of Williams. “I think he just keeps getting better and better. He’s maybe the most difficult quarterback to sack we’ve ever come across that is also a great throwing threat.”
“We’ve played some really athletic quarterbacks that you might liken to a wide receiver playing QB, but nobody is harder to sack than that guy. He keeps the plays alive, he extends the plays, he keeps his eyes downfield incredibly well during the scrambles,” he continued.
Utah’s defense allowed 556 total yards to USC in their first matchup but has been stout all season.
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The Utes' defense enters the Pac-12 Championship Game with the best defense in the conference, first in yards allowed per game (317.5) and points (20.1 points allowed per game).
“We've challenged the guys to reset — understand that this game is going to be a different game, different challenge, different setting,” Riley said. “You've got to be ready to respond to that, especially against a tremendous team like Utah.”
It will all be on the line in Las Vegas as the hopes of the Pac-12 rest on USC’s shoulders.
A Trojans victory, and the conference ends a five-year CFP drought. A loss, and USC’s magical season will come crashing back down to earth.