The Pac-12 crown will come down to the Utes and the Ducks, the two teams who were predicted to win their respective divisions in the conference’s preseason poll.
Utah (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) suffered their only loss of the season at USC on a short week in September. Since then, the Utes have rattled off eight straight wins and won seven of those games by at least 22 points.
On offense, Utah has a senior one-two punch of quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss. Huntley has garnered some Heisman talk for his calm, efficient play, and ranks second nationally in completion percentage (75.5 percent) and is fifth in the country in passing efficiency rating (188.6). Huntley has thrown for 16 touchdowns, with just two interceptions, and added 255 yards and five scores running. Moss holds school records in career rushing yards (3,897), career carries (677), career rushing touchdowns (38), career 100-yard rushing games (18) and career touchdowns scored (40). He is the first Ute to have three 1,000 yard rushing seasons in a career and has 1,246 yards this season with 15 touchdowns. Sophomore tight end Brant Kuithe has become the top receiving target for Utah and has scored six touchdowns (three receiving, three rushing) in the last three games.
Defensively, Utah is the top defensive in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation. The Utes lead the conference in rushing defense, scoring defense, passing efficiency defense, scoring defense and total defense. Utah has allowed opponents to score more than 17 points just twice all season. Senior defensive lineman Bradlee Anae was named first-team All-Pac-12 this week and is seventh in FBS with 12.5 sacks this year. At linebacker, the Utes have a pair of tackling machines in senior Francis Bernard and sophomore Devin Lloyd. Utah has a pair of All-Pac-12 performers in the secondary in junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson and senior safety Julian Blackmon. Blackmon is tied for the Pac-12 lead with four interceptions this year, while Johnson leads Utah with 10 passes broken up.
Oregon (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) lost a heartbreaker in their opening game of the season, 27-21, to Auburn, but then won nine consecutive games. Two weeks ago, however, the Ducks fell to Arizona State, 31-28, before bouncing back with a victory over rival Oregon State to finish the season.
The Ducks offense is fairly balanced between run and pass. Senior quarterback Justin Herbert will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in school history and has played well in his final season. Herbert has thrown for 3,140 yards, 31 touchdowns, and five interceptions. On the ground, Oregon has a three-headed monster made up of sophomores CJ Verdell, Travis Dye, and Cyrus Habibi-Likio. Verdell (963 yards, five touchdowns) is the early downs back, Dye (642 yards, zero touchdowns) is the change of pace back, while Habibi-Likio (310 yards, 10 touchdowns) is the goal line back. Junior receiver Johnny Johnson III has been Herbert’s favorite target since senior tight end Jacob Breeland went down with an injury. Johnson leads the team with 49 catches for 731 yards and six touchdowns. Junior receiver Jaylon Redd leads the team with seven receiving scores.
Defensively, this will go down as one of the best Oregon defenses in recent history. Since the expansion to the 12-game regular season, no Duck defense has allowed fewer points than this year’s squad (189). Oregon has held 11 of its 12 opponents under their current season scoring average, including seven to at least 10 points below their average. Additionally, the Ducks have held opponents to 331 yards per game, a program-best since 2009. Going back even further, Oregon is allowing just 106 rushing yards per game, which is the fewest for the Ducks since 2003. The Ducks secondary is a “no-fly zone” and has intercepted 17 passes this season, best in the Pac-12 and second in the nation.
Oregon and Utah didn’t meet in the regular season but were the two best teams in the conference. Both teams have impressed on offense and defense, but in championship-type games, defense usually wins out. The team that makes fewer costly mistakes (turnovers, penalties) should come out victorious.