Los Angeles • Washington is the favorite to win this year’s Pac-12 football championship, overwhelmingly.
That description would not apply to the way the Huskies have performed against Utah in Chris Petersen's three seasons as the Huskies' coach.
Same story with USC's Clay Helton, whose team is picked to win the South division title in 2018.
The status of the Huskies and Trojans in the Pac-12 is a compliment to the Utes, who can claim to have played as well against those top-tier schools as any program in the conference lately. Whenever the subject of the Utes came up Wednesday during the Pac-12 Football Media Day, a theme emerged.
Washington quarterback Jake Browning: “Utah's a very physical team.”
Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith, formerly the Huskies' offensive coordinator: “Those guys are physical.”
Petersen: “They play tough, physical football.”
Helton: “You know you're in for a physical opponent.”
They’re not being condescending.
The Trojans remember how Ute quarterback Troy Williams beat the (31-27) in 2016 at Rice-Eccles Stadium with a late touchdown drive, then gave his team another chance to win by completing a TD pass last October in Los Angeles. Williams then scrambled and was stopped a yard short of the goal line on a 2-point conversion attempt, with receiver Darren Carrington II famously open in the back of the end zone.
The Huskies know they needed Dante Pettis' punt-return touchdown to break a fourth-quarter tie in Salt Lake City in 2016, and then had to score 10 points in the last 58 seconds to rescue a 33-30 win last November in Seattle. Utah could have completed a seven-point victory either by picking up one more first down offensively or making a fourth-and-10 stop defensively.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham's timeout on Washington's last possession ultimately enabled the Huskies to kick the winning field goal as time expired. From a Ute perspective, though, the game never should have reached that stage.
Nobody knows what may have happened in overtime in either of those games. What's clear is the Utes, even though they won only three of their other seven Pac-12 games, played two of the conference's best teams evenly on the road.
And they get the Huskies and Trojans at home in 2018.
Washington's visit Sept. 15 in a Pac-12 opener will tell a lot about each team. “I think Utah's a tough matchup for everybody,” Petersen said. “I don't think it's anything unique to us.”
That's partly true, considering the Utes have gone 8-10 in conference play the past three seasons. They've raised their level of play against the better teams.
The Trojans will come to town Oct. 20 in a game that should help determine the Pac-12 South champion. “When we go up there, we’re expecting another tight battle until the last minute,” said USC linebacker Porter Gustin, a senior from Salem Hills High School.
PAC-12 MEDIA POLL
1 • USC • (22) 225 points
2 • Utah (14) 209
3 • Arizona (3) 178
4 • UCLA (2) 116
5 • Colorado (1) 80
6 • Arizona State 72
1 • Washington (40) 249 points
2 • Stanford (1) 198
3 • Oregon (1) 178
4 • California 108
5 • Washington State 98
6 • Oregon State 45
First-place votes in parentheses