SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The Pac-12 championship game has largely been an afterthought for the rest of the country the past two seasons with the conference mostly out of contention when it comes to the all-important College Football Playoff.
That will be far from the case this year when there will be plenty of focus on how No. 5 Utah fares against No. 13 Oregon on Friday night and whether the Utes are worthy of being one of the top four teams in the country.
“We haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to it,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We certainly understand the big picture, but you control the controllable and all we can control is trying to get a win on Friday against Oregon and then it is out of our hands at that point. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.”
The Utes (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12, No. 5 CFP) head into the final weekend with a slight edge over Big 12 title game participants Oklahoma and Baylor, which hold the next two spots in the playoff rankings. If No. 2 LSU takes care of business against No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game on Saturday, there figures to be one spot open.
Utah, which has won eight straight games with seven of those victories coming by at least 18 points, would be in competition with the Big 12 champion for that No. 4 spot. But none of that will matter if the Utes can’t handle the Ducks in a matchup of the conference’s two top teams.
“We have a lot of talent on either side of the ball, offense and defense. They have a lot of talent on their side,” Utes running back Zack Moss said. “So there’s going to be some fireworks for sure. It’s going to be a bit chippy. It’s just going to be a fun game to watch for sure.”
If Utah wins and gets squeezed out of the playoffs the consolation prize of the school’s first Rose Bowl berth isn’t too shabby.
That’s all that the Ducks (10-2, 8-1, No. 13 CFP) are playing for after they lost 31-28 two weeks ago at Arizona State.
Despite the disappointment from that loss, Oregon is showing great progress in the second full season under coach Mario Cristobal, who has gotten the Ducks back into the national conversation after a three-year run when they went 20-18.
“We feel like the trajectory, it continues to go up and up and up,” Cristobal said. “At the rate that our players are developing both in the classroom and on the football field, the rate that we’re acquiring talent, it’s really exciting and it makes you want more and more and more. When we got here obviously there was some things to fix and get on track but Oregon has been great for a long, long time. We feel very obligated to uphold that legacy and that standard. We’re driven to do so.”
Utah made it to this stage a year ago but fell 10-3 to Washington in a game played without the team’s top two offensive players in Moss and quarterback Tyler Huntley. Both are healthy this year and the Utes are eager to complete the job and win their first conference championship since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
“This is the reason we came back,” cornerback Julian Blackmon said. “We didn’t come back to lose. We came back to win. We came back to finish. We’re just excited for this opportunity and we’ve just got to execute it.”
Oregon’s offense has run into some problems the past two weeks after averaging more than 41 points per game the previous five contests. The Ducks were held to just seven points in the first three quarters against Arizona State and needed a late touchdown to break 20 in last week’s 24-10 victory over Oregon State. Justin Herbert was held to a season-low 174 yards passing against the Beavers.
“We didn’t perform to our standard; we know that,” Cristobal said. “We gave up some really routine situations ad opportunities that we usually convert on and it’s not good enough and it’s on all of us. It’s a little bit of everything. As you know, we don’t play the blame game over here but you’ve seen enough tape to know that the things that we’ve done really well, we were off. And we were off not by much but off by this much means that you gave up 21-28 points that you could’ve scored and should’ve scored and we didn’t do it.”
The Utes have been dominant on defense this season, holding six opponents to seven points or fewer. Utah leads the nation in run defense, allowing 56.3 yards per game and only 2.26 per carry. The Utes also rank in the top 10 in the nation and best in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (11.3 points per game) and total defense (241.6 yards per game), and held 11 of 12 opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
This will be the sixth and final season the Pac-12 will play its title game in the home of the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara. The game will move to the new stadium for the Raiders in Las Vegas next year. The move to the Bay Area hasn’t been a great one for the Pac-12, which played its first three title games on campus sites. Attendance topped 50,000 just once in the first five games — for a 2015 matchup between Stanford and USC — and dropped down to 35,134 last year.