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Pac-12 championship betting preview: Worth the hype

Chris Gardner / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It turns out Utah and USC were, in fact, worth the hype.

The conference favorites are matched up in the Pac-12 championship in Las Vegas as Utah returns to defend its title, while USC's massive offseason overhaul actually worked after poaching head coach Lincoln Riley and quarterback Caleb Williams from Oklahoma. Williams seems to have the Heisman Trophy locked up, but there's more than just a conference title on the line for the Trojans. USC found its way into the College Football Playoff's top four on Tuesday, and a win would put the Trojans into a national semifinal. Of course, their last hurdle to the CFP is the one team to beat them this season.

No. 12 Utah vs. No. 4 USC (-3, 67.5)

Utah +240
USC +220

USC's offense vs. Utah's defense

It took almost the whole year, but USC finally reached the top of Football Outsiders' offensive efficiency index. The Utes' defense is no slouch, though, ranking 23rd in FEI.

Utah didn't look the part defensively in the teams' first meeting in Salt Lake City, as Williams shredded them for 438 total yards and five passing touchdowns. However, it was a tale of two halves. USC's pace overwhelmed Utah in the first half, where the Trojans scored four of their six touchdowns with drives that took all of 1:44, 4:04, 1:48, and 2:46.

After halftime, whatever adjustments Utah's Kyle Whittingham made worked. Utah's defense caught up to the Trojans' speed, with two USC drives in the second half taking upwards of five minutes.

Utah's offense vs. USC's defense

While the Utes scored three times in the second half, their offense was more effective in that they also kept USC off the field. Utah drives had seven, 11, 10, and 15 plays, leaving USC just three neutral game state drives in the second half. A fourth drive came with just 48 seconds left after Whittingham opted to go for a two-point conversion and a 43-42 lead.

Taking time off the clock on offense and putting the game in Cameron Rising's hands had a lot to do with the one weakness on either side. USC's defense is ranked 93rd out of 131 teams in Football Outsiders' DFEI. Rising led the team in rushing that night, and Tavion Thomas has announced his college career is over, so sophomore Micah Bernard will need to have a big game against a defense that gave up 142 rushing yards per game this season.

The market

USC opened as a 1.5-point favorite and has been bet up to a full field goal, presumably based on the combination of the Trojans' high-profile wins over UCLA and Notre Dame, the must-win nature that a CFP berth brings into the fold, and the desire to bet on Williams to do fun things. However, the Utes were -3.5 at home in the earlier matchup, and all they've done wrong since is a close loss at Oregon. Shifting from home to neutral field shouldn't constitute a 6.5-point shift, especially since USC also lost starting tailback Travis Dye later in the season.

How to bet the Pac-12 championship

If you followed our preseason preview and bet Utah +240 to win the conference, there isn't enough reason to flip positions and back USC, and you're holding a significantly better price on the Utes to win outright than their current moneyline of +125. Let it ride!

Given they're favored, a preseason position on the Trojans at +220 gives you options. Playing back on Utah +3 opens up the possibility for a middle.

With no position and the market move giving Utah a full field goal, taking the points with the Utes is the right play. If they can continue the strategy used in the second half against USC, they could slow Williams and Co. down from the start, just as they did against Oregon in their last three meetings with the Ducks.

Much has been made of USC's seemingly unsustainable turnover margin this season, and while there's no guarantee that we see that rectified, Utah took the Trojans' biggest punches and stayed in the first game long enough to win. They can do the same here.

As a unique addendum to this game, if you think Utah wins the Pac-12 championship, Ohio State at 12-1 to win the national title is an interesting prospect. The Buckeyes sit fifth in the CFP rankings and would likely steal the final semifinal spot with a USC loss. While the market is low on them after their loss to Michigan, they have the talent to compete in a No. 1 versus No. 4 matchup with Georgia.

Pick: Utah +3

Matt Russell is a betting writer for theScore. If there's a bad beat to be had, Matt will find it. Find him on Twitter @mrussauthentic.

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