Gold: Like a Vegas magic act, USC's Pac-12 title and potential Playoff berth disappear into thin air
LAS VEGAS — Caleb Williams was Superman until he wasn’t, learning once and for all that the Utah defense is quite clearly his kryptonite.
Lincoln Riley was Pete Carroll reincarnated until he wasn’t, learning the hard way that, yes, it takes a defense that can tackle anyone tougher than a chubby eighth grader to actually turn in a championship-level performance.
USC was College Football Playoff-bound until it wasn’t, leaving the Pac-12 wanting once more.
They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happened on Friday will linger in this league for weeks, if not months, if not years. The joke on the Pac-12 is we don’t deserve nice things, but it feels all too serious today. We’re going on a half-dozen years without a College Football Playoff berth, a no-doubt CFP hopeful left at the altar for the second time in three seasons.
Ohio State likely moves into the College Football Playoff and now the Trojans head to the Cotton Bowl or some other consolation prize that now feels more like a chore than a celebration.
It was in USC’s hands, and then, like so many Utah ball-carriers on Friday night, it wasn’t.
The coronation came too early. The passing of the torch from the Pac-12 right into Riley’s hands was instead intercepted. After beating a pair of ranked squads in back-to-back weeks, and in rivalry games at that, the Trojans crashed back down to earth courtesy of the most stable program in the conference if not college football.
Kyle Whittingham has been at Utah for so long and accomplished so much that it now feels like old hat. Undefeated seasons, double-digit wins for the 4th time in 8 seasons, 10 bowl wins in 14 seasons. If a team can almost quietly become one of the best in the country, the Utes have done it.
They came into Friday’s matchup as underdogs, a role that Whittingham relishes, and something that played to the Utes’ advantage on Friday.
As much as we want to say that USC gave this one away, it’s fairer to categorize it like this: Utah took it away. The Utes were bigger, better, faster, stronger.
After falling behind 17-3, Utah went on a 44-7 run and it somehow felt even more lopsided.
“Just unwavering belief,” said Cameron Rising, who earned title game MVP honors after completing 22-of-34 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns. “We have a game plan, players who are great players who get the job done. We can’t stop believing in that, and that’s what we did.”
America, did you, like, watch USC's D this year?
In the first meeting, Utah won with 562 yards of total offense
In the Pac-12 Championship, Utah won with 533 yards of total offense
USC D allowed 400 yards or more 6 times in the last 7 games, and over 500 4 times
— Pete Fiutak (@PeteFiutak) December 3, 2022
Or maybe, just maybe, it had nothing to do with USC whatsoever.
Lest we forget: Utah is the defending Pac-12 champion and handed the Trojans their only other loss of the season.
Faced with a crushing defeat and an all-too-obvious demotion in Sunday’s final CFP standings, the looks on the faces of Riley, Williams, and linebacker Shane Lee — the Trojans’ three post-game press conference representatives — can best be described as sullen, if not colorless. This is not what they envisioned.
Riley, though, remained steadfast.
“We’re not going to walk around like this is some funeral, alright?” he said. “We’ve made some great progress to be in this moment. We expected to win tonight. We didn’t get it done. But that changes nothing in terms of the direction and trajectory of this program, and it’s due to guys like these two guys here, all those guys in that locker room that are heartbroken right now that battled. Had guys refusing to come out of the game. Guys continued to battle as things went on. We’ve done it all year. No real surprise there.”
And no surprise that, once more, the Pac-12 is on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.