Preview: No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon
It’s finally here!
No. 5 Utah vs. No. 13 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. MST from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and will be broadcasted on ABC.
This is the matchup that every college football fan and college football playoff committee member has wanted to see. The nation’s best offensive line against the nation’s best defensive line. The battle of top-20 offenses against top-10 defenses.
For Utah, the Utes are returning to the conference championship game after losing to Washington in last year.
“It was very difficult to get back here. Running the gauntlet of a nine-game Pac-12 schedule is not easy and of course we started out from (a less than) ideal situation when we lost that first one and then had to run the table the rest of the way,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “So, it was a long, hard road, but the guys persevered and continued to work and continued to stay focused. They just continue to just attack them one at a time.”
While this matchup lost some of its steam following Oregon’s loss to Arizona State two weeks ago, the stakes are still incredibly high for the Utes.
Utah checked in at No. 5 in this week’s college football playoff rankings — and with a top-4 showdown in the SEC serving as an elimination game of sorts — there’s a good chance the No. 4 spot will be up for grabs. The Utes have the inside track with a win over the Ducks on Friday, but that won’t be an easy task according to Whittingham.
"They’re an explosive team that plays good defense. … They've got some tremendous athletes,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, Herbert is a big-time player and are very skilled. They have an offensive line that will be a great matchup because they have one of the best offensive lines in the country and we have one of the best defensive lines."
But despite Oregon’s talents, Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal knows his boys will be up for the challenge as the Utes have a talented team as well.
“For us, we just feel them as a defense overall, they’re the most talented defense that we have faced,” Cristobal said of Utah. “They cover you, they bring pressure, they disguise pressure, they don’t need to bring pressure at times. They’ve really done an excellent job controlling and dominating the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball.”
Utah (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) enters the conference championship game on an eight-game winning streak following its early-season loss to No. 22 USC. But the playoff committee appears to have given the Utes a break in that loss considering star running back Zack Moss, who leads the Pac-12 in rushing, got hurt and didn’t play for most of that game.
"We have been a lot more relentless during this stretch, and we just didn't want to leave any doubt," said Demari Simpkins, Utah wide receiver. "Everybody doubted us after that loss and we just had something to prove."
The game will be extra special to Moss and starting quarterback Tyler Huntley, as both players missed last season’s conference championship game due to injury, a game in which the Utes lost 10-3 to Washington.
Meanwhile, the Ducks return to the conference championship since for the first time since the inaugural game in 2014, in which Oregon slaughtered Arizona to get to the first College Football Playoff semifinal.
Utah will be looking to close out its best Pac-12 season since joining the conference in 2011, with a berth in the Rose Bowl or Peach Bowl on the line. Standing in the Utes’ way are the Ducks, a fixture in college football royalty since the turn of the decade. This game will either serve as a passing of the torch for the Utes or a return to glory for the Ducks.
“We’ve got to get to work on the right way. … That’s a big reason why a lot of these seniors came back,” Whittingham said. “There are four or five of them that could have exited last year and turned professional, but they had some unfinished business and now they’re back in position to try to finish that business. … So we’ll see what happens.”