The South division in the Pac-12 is packed and tight, with Utah, number 17 in the nation, causing havoc and surprise. Oregon seem to be comfortably heading towards a Pac-12 championship game via the North, but the number four team according to the rankings has bigger things in mind.
Utah don’t win games the traditional way, or in a convincing way. Since the conference schedule began, in which they’re 3-2, all of their games have ended with a margin of six points or less. Just one of those games was actually decided by more than 3 points. Their only losses? By one point to Washington State of all teams and in another thriller against Arizona State, losing in overtime by three points. Their defense is 60th in the nation, and offense is even worse. But special teams and timing keep delivering, or at least making it very difficult for opponents.
Oregon are a case of aesthetics. A team that is fifth in the nation with 543 yards per game and scoring over 45. It’s been that way for years, only something always gets in the way of going all the way. In 2010, under Chip Kelly Oregon did make the national champions game, losing by a field goal to Auburn. They’ve failed to go back there despite looking constantly like the one team outside the SEC capable of putting on a big enough challenge. Florida State eventually beat them to the punch.
That loss earlier this season to Arizona aimed to throw everything off the rails for them again. But Oregon haven’t lost since, and one loss in a respected conference is enough to make the playoff. Given the number four ranking by the committee, winning out which includes winning the conference title for the first time since 2011 will mean going to the playoff, where they’ll probably have a chance of playing at least one SEC team.
While Utah don’t have any players that get special national attention, it’s worth mentioning that Kaelin Clay has returned a ball for a touchdown four times. As we said, Utah don’t throw the ball that much or have anything too special going on with their running game. They’re great on special teams and have a running back, Devontae Booker, who doesn’t mind carrying the ball until he falls apart at the end of games, knowing he’s pretty much the only playmaker on this offense.
This is probably the last hurdle in front of Oregon before winning their division. It becomes the game that their entire case to make the playoff hinges on. For Utah, a national title game isn’t going to happen. But they’re about moving up the ladder in the Pac-12, step by step. A win at home against the Ducks keeps their chances of winning the South alive. A loss and it might feel once again like this conference is still a bit too much for them to handle.