Utah Utes at USC Trojans, Saturday October 24, 7:30 p.m. ET
We knew coming into the season that a team from the Pac-12 was going to be in the heart of the playoff race by this point of the year. We also knew that their name was going to start with a U. What qualifies as a major surprise for anyone being honest, though, is that that team is Utah and not USC or UCLA. Yet here we are. Utah is in the driver's seat for the conference and will make the playoff as long as they keep winning. UCLA, meanwhile, has done what they do best - find ways to disappoint and underwhelm in the face of massive expectations. USC has trumped their cross-town rivals with the kind of drama that only USC can give us. For the Utes, then, this game is just massive. It is their biggest remaining challenge. A win guarantees them nothing, and they will have at least three more big tests to pass. A loss decreases their cushion atop the Pac-12 South, though, and would likely torpedo any playoff dreams.
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Utah at USC Betting Storylines
After the ridiculous drama from former head coach Steve Sarkisian this year - which all could have been avoided if Pat Haden had just realized that Sarkisian wasn't a great coach before hiring him, which he could have done just by watching Washington play for about two minutes - we are now in game two of what will be a short Clay Helton era. The offensive coordinator and QB coach is in his second stint as interim coach of the team in three years. This time around he faced a massive challenge in his first game - a trip to Notre Dame. It was ultimately a loss - the Irish won 41-31 - but it was a better effort than we had seen from USC all year with the exception of their win over Arizona State. They outgained the Irish quite significantly, they led in the fourth quarter, and they looked like they actually cared about football. The question now is whether the team can carry momentum forward and continue to improve under Helton. My biggest concern is the number of jobs Helton is trying to juggle. I already didn't like that he was trying to be both OC and QB coach. He ditched the QB title when he was promoted, but is still managing the offense and coaching plays. Being a head coach is a full-time job - especially for a team going through what this one has this year. Trying to juggle that with play calling and running the offense is an idea that limits progress, in my eyes.
We know that Helton is a major long shot to keep this job. He would have to win out in spectacular fashion, and even then he'd be a long shot. Despite all the chaos the last several years USC is still a prime job, so the speculation over who will be the next head coach is running rampant. At or near the top of most lists happens to be none other than Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. He has already faced a million questions about it, and he and his players will receive two million more as the game nears and he arrives in L.A.. It doesn't help, of course, that Whittingham would be a great fit and an outstanding hire or that USC is a big step up from Utah no matter how much success the Utes have. The potential for distraction is huge here.
Normally we don't look at the odds or line movement until the next section, but what is happening here is interesting enough to deserve attention. Utah is the highest-ranked team in more than 20 years to be a road underdog. It tells you a whole lot about how respect in football works that an unbeaten team is an underdog visiting a 3-3 team with an interim coach - especially when the road team beat USC just last year. That will surely be motivation for this Utah team. What is also interesting is the line movement. The game opened with USC favored by a field goal. The public is overwhelmingly backing the Utes - more than 80 percent of bets have been on them. Despite that, the line moved up to 3.5. Any line movement that goes against public action is significant, and one that involves the key number of three is particularly noteworthy. This is a good indication that sharp money has hit the Trojans pretty hard.
Utah at USC Odds and Betting Trends
We covered the odds in the last paragraph - USC is widely favored by 3.5, with Utah as the heavy public choice. The total sits at 59.5.
The home team is 4-0 ATS in the last four games these teams have played against each other. The Utes are 8-1 ATS in their last nine road games. Utah has gone "under" the total in six of their last seven games on grass, while USC has gone under in six of seven conference games.
College Football Expert Picks Against the Spread: Utah Utes at USC Trojans Predictions
My heart really, really wants to go with Utah. To be honest, part of my head does, too. Ultimately, though, I can't ignore two things. First of all, the line movement is a very compelling argument for the Trojans. As significantly, while I have nothing but respect for Utah, I have to note that they have faced a very taxing schedule, and that they don't have nearly the raw talent or depth that USC has. It all means that the Trojans have to be the pick, but I have certainly felt more confident about games in the past.
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