LAS VEGAS — Walking out of Allegiant Stadium on Friday night, a Utah fan caught a handful of Utes making their way out of the gates. Among them was Sydney-born tight end Thomas Yassmin, looking every bit his 6-foot-5, 251-pound frame, joined by, among others, Pac-12 title game MVP Cameron Rising, who was clearly holding his MVP trophy. Yet, Yassmin a 4th-year player who entered the season with all of 1 catch for 6 yards, was approached by a fan. Rising, the hero, was ignored.

“Damn, man, you made the big play!” the fan exclaimed at Yassmin. “I gotta get a picture!”

Yassmin gleefully obliged, only for the fan to leave him with a loud, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi.”

The fact this happened to an obscure third-string tight end says everything there is to be said about why the Utes walked out of the stadium smiling ear-to-ear while the favored USC Trojans limped out with their dreams dashed.

Utah 47, USC 24. The Pac-12 title stays in Salt Lake City.

In some ways, it would have been a shame had Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams waltzed into the Pac-12 in Year 1 and walked away champions.

It would have been rewarding everything that is wrong with college football. Big bucks and private jets and transfer portals for more than just mere mortals. It would have been giving into the excess, the pursuit of championships coming at the expense of what college athletics is ostensibly all about. It would have been celebrating piracy and decadence and quick fixes.

It wasn’t quite billed as such, but I can’t remember the last time we’ve seen such a clash of cultures.

Not that Riley and USC haven’t built something special in just one season, but it’s just that — just one season.

On the other side of the field was the new kid on the block-turned-classic archetype. It wasn’t all too long ago that Utah was brand new to the Pac-12 — just a dozen years, to be exact. And the Utes weren’t the program they are now, even if they’d scaled the Mountain West for nearly a decade. There were some bumps along the way to sustained Pac-12 excellence.

And that’s what this is.

Seven nine-win seasons in the last eight full years. Back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Back-to-back Rose Bowl berths.

If there was anyone who was going to keep Lincoln Riley from getting to the top of this mountain, it was going to be Kyle Whittingham.

It had to be.

All due respect to Dan Lanning and Kalen DeBoer, but had a first-year coach fallen behind 17-3 to the absolute juggernaut that is the USC offense, I think they fold. There is no deeper, more formidable, better-coached, better-balanced team in the Pac-12 than the Utah Utes and they proved it on Friday night.

Squaring off against one of the hottest teams in college football, a legitimate power in just Riley’s first season as head coach, the Utes braved an early storm and then turned on the fireworks, rebounding from that early 14-point deficit to reel off a 44-7 run en route to a 23-point defeat of the favored team.

Despite coming in as defending Pac-12 champions, the Utes relished being counted out against the presumptive Playoff-bound Trojans, who came to Sin City boasting a Heisman front-runner in Williams. This wasn’t just going to be a conference title for Riley. This was Williams’ marquee moment and USC’s chance to cement its playoff status.

“I felt we took it a little personal, kind of saw all that,” Rising said. “Just disrespect. Just wanted to go out and prove a point.”

Leave it to Whittingham to feed off that kind of energy all week. If anyone can make a defending conference champion feel like it has a chip on its shoulder, it’s Whit.

“We had a team meeting and had a vote if we should even show up for kickoff because they were already going to the Playoffs and had the Heisman and this and that,” Whittingham said, displaying his sardonic wit. “It’s not their fault. It’s people that get ahead of themselves in the media. We had a chip on our shoulder. But we didn’t really take a vote for that. We definitely got the message loud and clear that a lot of people were underestimating us, not giving us much of a chance in this game. That’s the wrong group of players to do that to. We’ve historically been a chip-on-our-shoulder type of program that’s getting harder and harder to do the more success you have.

“That was in our DNA from way back when, feeling a little bit disrespected and people weren’t giving us our due. You shook up a little bit of a hornet’s nest when that happened.”

The Utes certainly have been re-awakened after being counted out following three regular-season losses: a three-point loss in a hard-fought season-opener at The Swamp against Florida; a 42-32 shootout at UCLA in Week 6, when the Bruins scored two fouth-quarter touchdowns; and a 20-17 loss at Oregon in Week 11. None of them particularly bad losses, but three losses nonetheless.

The fact that three regular-season losses are considered a surprise speaks to the heights to which Whittingham has risen the program.

It wasn’t always this way. Utah hasn’t always had the kind of depth that leads them to replacing an All-American-level tight end in Brant Kuithe with another in Dalton Kincaid, much less a third impact player at the position in Yassmin. Yassmin had two receptions on Friday, one in the second quarter that went for 21 yards and a 60-yard touchdown with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter that put the Utes up 34-24.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to achieve ever since we got in the conference,” Whittingham said. “When we first got here, our first 22 were good, but a big drop-off after that. We’ve been working tirelessly to improve the depth of the roster. I think we’re as deep and talented now as we ever have been. I know we are. I think that was manifest a lot of times this season. A lot of times we were without guys. Other years probably could not have overcome it, not continued to play at the high level we were able to this year. That’s because of the recruiting efforts of our coaches, their development of those players, the sheer talent of the roster 1 through 85.”

That depth wasn’t just found on offense, where the Utes replaced Tavion Thomas by converting a backup quarterback into a 100-yard rusher, as Ja’Quinden Jackson looked like the best running back on the field on Friday, finishing with 105 yards and two scores on 13 carries.

What about the stout Utah defense, which was without Van Fillinger, one of the best defensive linemen in the conference? The Utes sacked Caleb Williams seven times, including two sacks by defensive end Gabe Reid and two more by linebacker Mo Diabate, who has taken over for Devin Lloyd — last year’s title game MVP — well.

“They make you earn it,” Riley said. “Quarterback’s played a lot of ball. They’ve got some really good skill. Defensively they’re very strong. Had a system in place, guys recruited for a long time, you see the continuity, how that’s built. You kind of feel that with the way their guys play. You got to give ’em credit. Part of when you get to kind of these moments in these big games is groups that have been there before. They certainly have.

“A lot of our team has not.”

That was abundantly clear on Friday, though in some ways this entire season felt like a passing of the torch to a new breed of Pac-12 coaches. Riley, Lanning, DeBoer — has the league ever seen such an influx of top-flight head coaches?

It feels poetic that there was crafty ol’ Kyle Whittingham, with the best hair in the conference and the second-longest tenure with one team in college football, back up at the press conference table, joking with reporters. Anyone who has covered Whittingham knows he wouldn’t have been all that different had the tables been turned.

Even if they had lost, the Utes still would be the best program in the Pac-12. Whittingham knows it. We all know it, even if it took a little reminder on Friday.

“I think it speaks to just that: our program,” Whittingham said. “I think we’ve got a very good football program. That’s what you want. You don’t want to have a good team every now and then. You want to have a good program. I think that’s the point we’re at right now. We have a program that’s got some momentum now, a great deal of pride, a great deal of talent on the roster, excellent coaches. That’s what you strive for, to be an outstanding program. Thanks to the hard work of our assistant coaches and players, we’re closing in on that.”