ESPN predicts Utah-USC to battle for Pac-12 south crown

Ryan Kostecka

Over the past five seasons, Utah has a winning record against every Pac-12 south division team except for one — the repeated thorn in the Utes' side, USC.

It's been a Jekyll and Hyde approach with the Trojans, who lead the Utes 3-2 over the past five seasons with each team swapping victories the following season. Each team has two Pac-12 south division titles in that time with the Utes winning in 2018-19 and the Trojans winning in 2015 and 2017.

With those two pretty much dominating the Pac-12 south scene as of late, it should come as no surprise that entering the 2020-21 season, the division crown is expected to come down a battle between the two teams again.

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Although, high-on-talent, short-on-experience Arizona State could have something to say about that — or even a potentially dangerous UCLA squad — the Pac-12 south is going to have to run through Salt Lake City.

According to ESPN, the Pac-12 south division title is going to come down to Utah and USC, with their Friday night matchup on October 2 in Salt Lake City going a long way into determining who represents the south.

Both teams will enter the new season with vastly different situations but the very same expectations.

UTAH (11-3, 8-1 Pac-12)
*Losses to USC, Oregon and Texas (including final two games last year)
*Top Players: TE Brant Kuithe, DL Mike Tafua, LB Devin Lloyd, RB Devin Brumfield and DB Clark Phillips III 

After losing nine defensive starters (six of whom were drafted) and record setters on offense in quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, most teams would go through a rebuild. 

But that's not the way Utah thinks and head coach Kyle Whittingham is arguably the best coach in the nation of getting the most out of his players despite their "star" status. This season is going to have to be one of his best coaching seasons if the Utes are to remain atop the conference.

The quarterback battle between incoming grad transfer Jake Bentley and former Texas transfer Cam Rising is expected to steal the headlines this summer and fall. 

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But the offense is otherwise loaded with talent (although unproven on talent). The offensive line returns four starters, the backfield has young explosive running backs (something Utah always seems to have), and the receiving corps has a budding star in tight end Brant Kuithe and a slew of juniors and seniors with game experience.

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The defense is where the question marks lie, especially in the secondary where all four starters need to be replaced. But Utah's defense has been so successful over the past decade that there is no reason to think the Utes can't at least be solid in that regard.

Free safety RJ Hubert is the only returning player in the secondary with over 50 snaps played, while 4-star cornerback Clark Phillips III could be a budding star and should start from his first day on campus until his last. 

The defensive line is anchored by Mika Tafua, Utah's next great defensive end who should breakout as a junior with the departure of Bradlee Anae. Utah did add four-star defensive ends Van Fillinger and Xavier Carlton, two players who physically look the part and should provide immediate depth.

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The linebacker corps is led by senior Devin Lloyd, a returning starter and the team's leading tackler from last season. Sione Lund, a former Stanford transfer, came on strong at the end of last season and saw his reps increase, which should provide more stability.

USC (8-5, 7-2 Pac-12)
*Beat Utah 30-23 last season, lost 49-24 to Iowa in Holiday Bowl
*Top Players: QB Kedon Slovis, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR Tyler Vaughns, DE Drake Jackson, S Talanoa Hufanga

There might not be a team in the country with more returning talent than the Trojans, and that's even after losing No. 1 wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. to the NFL. But the return of Kedon Slovis, who could be one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, the most talented wide receiver group not named Alabama, USC's offense is primed to explode.

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But protecting Slovis must be a priority, as USC is expected to start new tackles on both sides of the offensive line. All three interior lineman return, but securing Slovis' blindside, especially against the Pac-12's edge rushers, will be important.

Defensively, the Trojans can only improve because they were downright atrocious at some points. One thing they don't lack is experience as 21 of 23 players who played over 100 snaps last season all return. 

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Sep 20, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive lineman Drake Jackson (99) tackles Utah Utes wide receiver Britain Covey (18) resulting in a penalty during the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Drake Jackson is a budding superstar at defensive end and is going to be a problem for opposing offensive coordinators. Cornerbacks Greg Johnson and Olaijah Griffin can get the job done, but Hufanga is the wildcard. He possesses great size, instincts and overall skillset but his dependability has been questioned before. He can easily be an All-American or the type of guy who goes for the big play but instead gives one up to lose you the game.

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The run defense is where USC will either falter or be successful, especially against Utah. Last season the Trojans were terrible against the run so the thinking is that more experience should help a lot — But can more experience really take you all the way into contender status?

PREDICTION
If there's one thing we've learned in the Pac-12, it doesn't necessarily matter if you win head-to-head because anything can happen. 

After losing to USC, the Utes reeled off eight straight conference wins while the Trojans faltered against Oregon and Washington to gives the Utes the title. Utah does have the advantage though by not playing the Ducks and hosting both the Trojans and Huskies, while USC is on the road at Oregon and hosting Washington.

Regardless of how good Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley are, it's difficult to envision this Utah defense keeping USC in check. My prediction is that the Trojans get the win on Oct. 2 and that victory helps them regain the Pac-12 south title.

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