Trojans, Wolverines Face Key Late-Season Tests

Michigan Wolverines RB Blake Corum
Michigan Wolverines RB Blake Corum
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 12 - One of the words that seems to crop up often in college football circles is the idea of a game being a "test"—a chance for a playoff or conference contender to prove its mettle or come up short. Every team has to face these games throughout the season, though some more than others, and they're often what separates the true giants of the sport from those trying to make a claim to the throne.

Take the Big Ten, for example: Michigan passed their only major test of the season with flying colors, racing past Penn State in the second half of a 41-17 victory. Illinois, meanwhile, didn't have the offensive depth to keep up with Purdue in last week's 31-24 loss, putting their hopes of a New Year's Six bid on life support. Now the Illini serve as a test themselves, challenging the Wolverines' ability to put away a lesser (but still dangerous) opponent ahead of The Game next week.

November is full of such games, and they always trip up a few playoff hopefuls before the truly titanic showdowns of Rivalry Week. Last week, Oregon, UCLA, and Ole Miss all entered their games with one loss, and the first two were considerable favorites; all three lost, creating further twists in the playoff picture.

In the Pac-12, all remaining hopes of a College Football Playoff spot hinge on 9-1 USC, which must take down UCLA, Notre Dame, and a conference championship game opponent to put themselves in the conversation. In the SEC, meanwhile, every team in the West has multiple losses, and LSU must upend a dominant Georgia team to have a shot at the playoff. Those misfortunes have also raised the odds of contenders elsewhere—Clemson and North Carolina continue to survive and advance towards a decisive ACC title game, while the crowd of teams that could finish 12-1 with a conference championship tiebreaker over Tennessee has thinned somewhat.

Week 13 and the title games will understandably earn top billing as the decisive moments of this season, considering how many possible CFP teams will face off against one another. But to get there—as teams from Syracuse to Penn State, from Oklahoma State to Ole Miss, from Alabama to Illinois were unable to—avoiding defeat in lesser games is vital. The stakes may be higher down the road, but this last seemingly quiet week is one of many that determine where they stand.

All times are listed as Eastern.

TCU Horned Frogs (-2.5) at Baylor Bears—12 p.m. (FOX)

Overall TCU Baylor
2022 F+ 8 28
When TCU has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 9 42
2022 EPA/pass 10 56
2022 EPA/rush 9 53
When Baylor has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 25 29
2022 EPA/pass 100 29
2022 EPA/rush 45 49

Perhaps you never thought of those supposed contenders, now faded pretenders, as legitimate candidates to make it this far into the season with playoff hopes. But if you were that skeptical, odds are you have been surprised at every turn by this TCU team. The Horned Frogs have displayed all the warning signs and fatal flaws that led to the downfall of teams such as Syracuse (unsustainable success on key plays), Oklahoma State (dismal secondary play and no quarterback depth), and Illinois (a shortage of offensive weapons). They have danced out of disaster against SMU (42-34), Kansas (38-31), Oklahoma State (43-40 in overtime), Kansas State (38-28 with two quarterback injuries for the Wildcats), West Virginia (41-31 with a last-minute touchdown), and most recently Texas (17-10).

Logically, this team's reliance on big offensive plays and their inability to contain the deep pass should have tripped them up at least once, and probably several times. But as the Orange, Cowboys, Illini, and numerous other paper tigers have come to terms with reality, TCU has kept right on winning. More than half of their competition could have—perhaps even should have—taken down the Horned Frogs, but they're now 10-0 and standing on the brink of closing out the season and cruising into the playoff. It's past time to set aside the uneven metrics, the potential for a crushing loss, and believe in TCU as a legitimate contender, which is what they have become.

The Big 12 title game still lurks ahead, and Week 13 opponent Iowa State is no pushover, but this is the Horned Frogs' last true test of this regular season. A year ago, they welcomed 7-1 Baylor to Fort Worth and shattered the Bears' nascent dreams of a playoff bid, stunning them in the first TCU game without Gary Patterson since 1997. Now the roles are reversed, as the Bears limp into this rivalry meeting at 6-4 and fresh off a 31-3 home loss to Kansas State. On paper, even given how dubious TCU looks in that setting, this would seem an easy win for the Horned Frogs. But last year, it looked like a certain loss, and we know what happened in that game.

The blueprint to beating TCU, as mentioned before, is taking advantage of their offense's tendency to lean on explosive plays. That's a factor that a team can control—the Horned Frogs have a 15.8% big-play rate, 10th-highest in the nation, for a reason—but it's inherently susceptible to small-sample size disaster. At TCU's rate of just under 70 plays per game, they only average about 11 of those big plays each week, which means a defense sniffing out just three of those chances can turn their explosiveness from elite to pedestrian. That's more or less what happened against Texas last week, which almost completely shut down the Horned Frogs' offense—they didn't allow a 20-yard pass or 10-yard run until the fourth quarter! Had TCU not held the Longhorns to their worst offensive performance of the season, that could have easily been their downfall.

But once again: they're still here, still unbeaten, and should be able to take care of a Baylor team coming off its worst loss in two years. If the Bears plan to pull off the upset, going after those big plays is the place to start. While the Baylor defense struggles on a play-by-play basis, ranking 68th in rushing success rate and 81st in passing success rate allowed, they're 30th and 31st in limiting explosiveness on the ground and through the air. (Texas, by comparison, is 24th and 46th even after their impressive showing against TCU.) Max Duggan (tied for 15th nationally with 41 20-yard passes) and Kendre Miller (tied for 16th with 29 10-yard runs) can both create those big plays, which makes Baylor's versatility in the second level key. Linebackers Dillon Doyle and and Matt Jones are averaging an impressive 11.5% tackle rate, but their coverage (78% completion rate, 8.4 yards per attempt allowed) could be an issue against the Horned Frogs' dynamic passing attack, which could prove critical if TCU once again finds itself in need of a comeback.

Watch for:

  • Will Baylor's offense (27th in success rate, 58th in explosiveness) be limited by the Frogs' aggressive defense (23rd in success rate, 79th in explosiveness)?
  • Can Miller and TCU's explosive rushing corps (eighth in open field yards per carry) beat a Bears run defense that excels in limiting big plays?
  • Can top Baylor pass-rushers TJ Franklin, Garmon Randolph, and Gabe Hall (9 sacks on 78 pressures) convert more pass rushes into takedowns?

FEI Outright Pick: TCU by 10.3.

Illinois Fighting Illini at Michigan Wolverines (-17.5)—12 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Illinois Michigan
2022 F+ 24 3
When Illinois has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 89 3
2022 EPA/pass 67 6
2022 EPA/rush 59 2
When Michigan has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 6 11
2022 EPA/pass 1 30
2022 EPA/rush 17 11

The complaints about Michigan's schedule strength have died down somewhat since they boatraced Penn State a month ago, but they have still cropped up frequently in the debate over where the 10-0 Wolverines should rank in the playoff picture. Their schedule thus far features only four teams with winning records, including an Iowa team that has impressed nobody and a UConn team that (while very fun to cheer for) is difficult to count as a win of the caliber Michigan needs. Of course, it should be noted that all of this debate would become irrelevant if the Wolverines either won out—beating Illinois, Ohio State, and the Big Ten West champion to go 13-0—or lost to the Buckeyes in next week's rivalry meeting to finish 11-1. The first scenario would certainly put them in the playoff, probably no lower than second; the latter would almost certainly eliminate them, with no conference title game and only one particularly great win.

The edge cases lie in Michigan's opportunities to lose to a Big Ten West team that would likely end up in the back of the rankings: this week's game against Illinois, which would almost certainly end up 9-3 but would still need help to make it to Indianapolis, and that Big Ten Championship Game against whatever team emerges from the West. A 12-1 Michigan team, carrying wins over Ohio State and Penn State but a loss to an unexceptional team with eight or nine wins, would present a much more difficult dilemma for the playoff committee. To avoid such a nerve-racking situation—and to reaffirm the point made in their win over Penn State that they can handle lesser competition—it's important for the Wolverines to show up from the start on Saturday.

Michigan's defense might be the best in the nation, leading the way with 11.2 points allowed per game and nine contests in which they allowed 17 points or fewer. Tommy DeVito (7.3 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, three interceptions) and Chase Brown (1,442 rushing yards) have both been solid for the Illini, but they'll be largely outmatched against the Wolverines' tenacious defense. In EPA per play, success rate, and explosiveness, on both rushing and passing plays, this unit ranks 11th or better in every measure. Even amidst that success, their run defense up front (12th in line yards per carry allowed, first in opportunity rate allowed) has managed to stand out. Brown will find success—he hasn't totaled under 110 yards in a game this season—but Illinois will need to lean heavily on their own defense to have a chance here.

That unit presents the more interesting battle in this game, and only the second true opportunity this season for Michigan's offense to prove its mettle. The Wolverines are averaging a superb 41.4 points per game, but the schedule they have faced lends some doubt as to how much that number means. Scoring 41 on the Nittany Lions, including 25 in the second half, alleviated some of those concerns, but this offense has clearly run rather hot-and-cold, often starting slow and picking up the pace in the second half. That may work against the Illini, but it could easily put them down big against Ohio State in a hurry, which is part of why making an early statement here is so meaningful.

Under J.J. McCarthy's watch, the Wolverines' passing has been effective enough, but it hasn't produced the explosiveness that it was hoped his deep ball could provide. Michigan is tied for 99th nationally with 27 passes of 20 or more yards and 11 of 30 or more yards, and McCarthy is tied for 82nd with 11 completions on throws at least 20 yards downfield. As with Illinois, Michigan's star running back—Blake Corum, who has 1,349 yards on the ground and leads FBS with 18 touchdowns—sets a high floor for what their offense is capable of, but they need those explosive passes to raise the ceiling as they enter the toughest stretch of the season. Against an Illini pass defense that leads the nation in EPA and is top-10 in success rate and explosiveness, the Wolverines will need McCarthy to show out and take their offense to the heights it's capable of.

Watch for:

  • Can Illinois' run defense (second in success rate allowed, 50th in explosiveness allowed) prevent Corum from getting into the open field?
  • Will the Wolverines maintain their field-position advantage (+9.1 yards per possession) against the Illini's special teams (+2.6 yards per possession)?
  • Can Michigan, sixth in havoc rate, create turnovers against Illinois, which has held opponents to the sixth-lowest havoc rate in FBS?

FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 18.8.

NC State Wolfpack at Louisville Cardinals (-4.5)—3:30 p.m. (ACCN)

Overall NC State Louisville
2022 F+ 43 30
When NC State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 93 20
2022 EPA/pass 81 23
2022 EPA/rush 89 48
When Louisville has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 15 55
2022 EPA/pass 44 89
2022 EPA/rush 74 68

Scott Satterfield could easily have been fired by this point. His four seasons at Louisville have been largely underwhelming, wasting the talent of dual-threat quarterback Malik Cunningham (315 yards away from surpassing Lamar Jackson for the most career all-purpose yards in program history). The Cardinals' best finish in four seasons with Satterfield at the helm and Cunningham under center was a mere 8-5 mark in 2019, and entering this year, the pair had a losing record. For a team that's only a few years removed from expecting a floor of eight wins every year, the lack of progress has been disappointing.

Many expected a one-point loss to Boston College, which dropped the Cardinals to 2-3 this season, to prove the dagger for Satterfield's up-and-down tenure. But they didn't move on then, and they have been rewarded with four wins in five games since, including a stunning 48-21 blowout of No. 10 Wake Forest. The loss to the Eagles, now 3-7 with a loss to UConn, remains a black mark on Louisville's résumé, but their other losses (Syracuse, Florida State, and Clemson) all look good, and all of a sudden they're 6-4 with every chance of winning out.

That success is all the more astonishing because, far from an underappreciated strength, Cunningham has been one of the biggest weaknesses of this team. Across his first three seasons as a starter, he averaged 9.3 yards per pass and 5.0 yards per carry, racking up 94 total touchdowns (also second in team history, behind only Jackson's 119). His exceptional 2021 season—in which he joined Jackson, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel, and Jalen Hurts as Power 5 quarterbacks this century with 19 passing and rushing touchdowns—led many to project him as one of the top passers (and rushers) in the nation this season. If the Cardinals could find their way to the upper half of the ACC, it seemed Cunningham would be at the heart of that surge.

Louisville seems to be making progress, although beating one of NC State and Kentucky down the stretch would make that improvement clearer. But their success this season has come in spite of a season from Cunningham, who's averaging a career-worst 7.3 yards per attempt and is on pace to finish with just half of his typical 20 passing touchdowns. He's still an effective scrambler, with 556 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, but his passing performances against teams such as Syracuse (6.9 yards per attempt, one interception) and Boston College (6.6 yards per attempt, one touchdown) haven't been pretty. To make matters worse, he's day-to-day with a shoulder injury from last week's loss to Clemson—in which backup Brock Domann entered after halftime and threw for 175 yards to Cunningham's 75 in the first half.

Injuries and a depleted receiving corps explain many of the struggles from Louisville's quarterback, but they have managed to keep winning despite the lack of a passing attack. The run game—led by Cunningham, Tiyon Evans (523 yards), and Jawhar Jordan (450 yards)—has picked up some of the slack, but the Cardinals' saving grace has been exceptional pass coverage. The secondary, much like the offensive passing, was inconsistent early in the season; it gave up 9.3 yards per attempt to Syracuse, 9.9 to Florida State, 14.5 to Boston College, and 9.2 to Virginia. But Louisville's pass defense has put it all together in recent weeks, holding their last four opponents to 5.4, 7.0, 3.5, and 6.8 yards per attempt with six interceptions and just three touchdowns. The defense's crowning moment was a spectacular third quarter against Wake Forest in which the Cardinals picked off three passes, returning two for pick-sixes, and forced three fumbles off of quarterback Sam Hartman.

Louisville has held back some solid quarterbacks in that stretch of success, including Hartman, Todd Centeio (admittedly while struggling with injury), and D.J. Uiagalelei. NC State is down to its third-string passer after a season-ending injury to Devin Leary and an underwhelming performance by backup Jack Chambers, but MJ Morris has been more than serviceable in the role. With 7.5 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, and one interception, he's a challenge the Cardinals can't overlook, especially if their own passing game is affected by Cunningham's injury or underperformance. As they so often have for a surprising Louisville squad, this secondary will need to come up big once again.

Watch for:

  • Does NC State (eighth in offensive starting field position) have a significant special-teams advantage over Louisville (96th in defensive starting field position)?
  • Who will win a battle between an unexplosive Wolfpack rushing corps (101th in big-play rate) and a susceptible Cardinals run defense (108th in big-play rate allowed)?
  • Can NC State's defense (fifth in standard-downs success rate, 91st in passing-downs success rate) find a way to get off the field?

FEI Outright Pick: Louisville by 5.1.

Oklahoma State Cowboys at Oklahoma Sooners (-7.5)—7:30 p.m. (ABC)

Overall Oklahoma State Oklahoma
2022 F+ 27 23
When Oklahoma State has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 27 57
2022 EPA/pass 59 82
2022 EPA/rush 73 87
When Oklahoma has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 52 18
2022 EPA/pass 102 18
2022 EPA/rush 58 24

The odds that last year's Bedlam would become one of the biggest meetings in the rivalry's history—a playoff elimination game between 10-1 conference title hopefuls—were fairly narrow in hindsight. Both teams danced in and out of danger all season: Oklahoma survived scares from Tulane, Nebraska, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas, Kansas, and Iowa State. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State escaped Missouri State, Tulsa, Boise State, Baylor, and Texas. Both teams were good, but each could easily have lost numerous games rather than making it to a momentous showdown in Stillwater.

This year's edition of the rivalry is more or less what that would have looked like. The Sooners and Cowboys have a combined eight losses, their most entering Bedlam since 2014, and neither is in the top 20 for the first time since 2005. Both the recurring flaws that plagued last season's death-defying teams and new weak points that have cropped up following offseasons of turnover have led to down years for both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Regardless of which team wins, it's unlikely this year's meeting will stand out in the history of a storied rivalry.

Nevertheless, this game holds intrigue beyond its unusually low stakes. After several years in which the Cowboys' defense led the way, they have returned to an offense-first identity, with an average score of 35-30 this season. That attack has leaned heavily on Spencer Sanders, who has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury all season. Oklahoma State has scored 34 or more every time he has played the full game, but have totaled just 36 across the last three games against Kansas State, Kansas, and Iowa State. The injury clearly limited Sanders' passing in the Cowboys' 48-0 loss to the Wildcats (their first shutout loss since 2009), and he didn't start against the Jayhawks or Cyclones, though he was brought in late last week and led a game-winning fourth quarter. If he's healthy, this offense will score at will against a poor Sooners defense. But just how healthy Sanders is remains a critical (and difficult-to-answer) question.

Oklahoma dealt with injury woes at quarterback of its own—Dillon Gabriel missed part of a 55-24 TCU loss and all of a 49-0 loss to rival Texas, their first shutout loss since 1998—but they seemed to have reversed course with Gabriel under center, outdueling a ranked Kansas and rebounding to 5-3 after three straight losses. In the last two weeks, however, Gabriel has averaged 7.3 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and three interceptions through the air, and the Sooners have dropped games to Baylor and West Virginia. The problem isn't that he has played terribly; those numbers are still perfectly acceptable in a small sample size. The problem is that Oklahoma lacks the depth on offense to account for an off day from their quarterback, and they certainly lack the defensive consistency to keep an incomplete offense on top.

The Sooners' reliance on Gabriel isn't as strong as the Cowboys' on Sanders: Eric Gray has been the best piece of their offense, racking up 1,113 rushing yards on 6.7 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. But when he has been unavailable, and when he has played but struggled, they haven't mustered much of an attack. Getting Gabriel going is the key to Oklahoma's offensive success moving forward, and that starts with avoiding situations where he needs to throw deep. His best performance this season, that 52-42 win over Kansas, was largely defined by short and intermediate passes: he went 27-for-36 when throwing less than 20 yards pass the line of scrimmage, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt on those throws. His efficiency as a big-play threat has been unreliable, with the Sooners 83rd in passing explosiveness and Gabriel himself seventh in the Big 12 with a 34.1% completion rate on deep passes. Making the most of his efficiency on shorter throws—and using key pieces like Gray to avoid situations where he needs to attempt longer ones—is the blueprint to reinvigorating Oklahoma's offense, and potentially to winning a shootout over their in-state rival.

Watch for:

  • Will the Cowboys' running backs (125th in second level yards per carry, 128th in open field yards per carry) be able to generate any big plays on the ground?
  • Can the Sooners (21.4 total drives per game) keep up with Oklahoma State's swift offensive pace (25.9 total drives per game)?
  • If the Cowboys (47th in rushing success rate allowed) can get some stops up front, can Gabriel create key plays to keep the offense running?

FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma by 0.3.

USC Trojans (-2.5) at UCLA Bruins—8 p.m. (FOX)

Overall USC UCLA
2022 F+ 12 21
When USC has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 4 72
2022 EPA/pass 12 78
2022 EPA/rush 2 39
When UCLA has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 74 5
2022 EPA/pass 46 6
2022 EPA/rush 130 40

Neither USC nor UCLA seems like a natural fit in the Big Ten, where they're set to play in the near future—in part because of geography and culture, but also because of the way they play football. The Trojans have scored 40 points in eight games this season, which only eight teams in the history of the Big Ten have done; the Bruins' six such games has happened only 38 times in Big Ten history, and both schools are likely to add more high scores before the year is over. One major opportunity to rack up points is, of course, the meeting between the two, as both have prevailed in shootouts frequently. No Big Ten team has ever won more than four games in which both teams scored 30 or more points, which UCLA has already done four times and USC has done twice. It's fair to say these dazzling offenses and vulnerable defenses would be out of place among the likes of Iowa and Illinois.

These teams do stack up to their future conference rivals in one way, though: they are fantastic at establishing the run game. Both USC and UCLA rank among the top five nationally in rushing success rate (55.5% and 55.2%) and rushing explosiveness (20.2% and 19.7%), putting them in rarefied air that not even Ohio State and Michigan have reached this year. Of course, the Trojans and Bruins are also excellent in the passing game—Caleb Williams (8.8 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns, two interceptions) has been nearly perfect, and Dorian Thompson-Robinson (8.2 yards per attempt, 20 touchdowns, four interceptions) has been fantastic as well. But the best weapons these teams have to throw at each other are lead backs Travis Dye (884 yards, 6.1 yards per carry) and Zach Charbonnet (1,145 yards, 7.5 yards per carry), both of whom are among the best at their position in the nation.

Both Charbonnet and Dye are among the 50 rushers with 145 or more carries this season, and they rank first and sixth in that group in yards per carry, respectively. Among Pac-12 rushers, they're first and third in total yards, first and fourth in touchdowns, first and fourth in total yards after contact, and first and fourth in 10-yard runs. Charbonnet has Dye beat (though only narrowly) in most major stats, but depth will also play a role, and the Trojans have an edge of their own with alternate rusher Austin Jones. Averaging 6.4 yards on 52 carries, Jones has been one of the most efficient secondary backs in FBS, with his 335 yards ranking ninth among rushers with less than 60 attempts. UCLA's counter, Keegan Jones, has 51 fewer yards on 10 more carries, and his deficit in yards after contact per carry (3.8 to 2.2) is particularly stark.

How do you hold off a rushing attack like that? Neither team has found much success in doing so this season: USC is 123rd in success rate and 116th in explosiveness allowed on runs, while UCLA is 116th and 86th in the same stats. While both seem to have made progress in their last two games (holding opponents to 2.6 and 3.9 yards per carry in USC's case and to 3.8 and 3.4 in UCLA's), they have also been facing fairly impotent offenses from California and Colorado and from Arizona State and Arizona. The Bruins, 119th in line yards per carry and 127th in power success rate allowed, have been working to get more push up front, particularly from underachieving edge rusher Grayson Murphy (12.5% missed-tackle rate in run defense). The Trojans' efforts at stopping the run, meanwhile, have been acceptable on the line but have fallen apart in the open field, where linebackers Shane Lee and Eric Gentry have a combined miss-tackle rate of 10.4%.

Both rushing attacks have a mismatch of drastic proportions (as do both quarterbacks, facing a pair of bottom-40 defenses in passing success rate allowed), but which will be bigger? The answer may come down to UCLA's ability to hold back big runs from turning into huge ones—while 117th in yards per carry allowed on the first five yards of a run and 99th on the next five, they're fourth on carries that make it past that point, having allowed just one run of 20 or more yards, the best mark in FBS. USC, which has given up 17 such runs to tie for 105th, might not be able to prevent Charbonnet from creating game-changing plays as well as UCLA will hold down Dye, and that could be key as they look to keep the Pac-12's remaining playoff hopes alive.

Watch for:

  • Will Caleb Williams (leading USC to a 14.8% passing explosiveness rate, 11th in FBS) find big plays against a UCLA secondary that ranks 15th in passing explosiveness allowed?
  • If the Bruins can limit Williams, how much weight will the Trojans (99th in rushing rate) be willing to place on their running backs?
  • Will Thompson-Robinson be able to keep UCLA's offense moving quickly against the Trojans' pass defense (92nd in success rate, but 22nd in explosiveness)?

FEI Outright Pick: USC by 8.2.

Utah Utes (-2.5) at Oregon Ducks—10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Utah Oregon
2022 F+ 9 11
When Utah has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 14 66
2022 EPA/pass 15 116
2022 EPA/rush 41 52
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 27 3
2022 EPA/pass 41 8
2022 EPA/rush 106 1

As so often seems to be the case with Utah, they have faded from the public eye following a slow start but have quietly worked their way into a strong position at the top of the Pac-12. That position grew stronger—and they returned to the top 10 for the first time since the preseason—when two of the conference's three playoff contenders went down last week, leaving only USC (their only loss to Utah itself) with fewer losses than the 8-2 Utes. Now they have an opportunity to all but clinch a bid to the Pac-12 Championship Game with a win over Oregon, still reeling from its home loss to rival Washington last week.

Utah's resurgence has been fuelled by a career-defining season from quarterback Cameron Rising, who's averaging 8.2 yards per attempt with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions (plus 6.4 yards per carry and six touchdowns on the ground). Rising started slowly against Florida, going 22-for-32 with 216 passing yards, a touchdown, and an interception in the loss, but he has been unshakeable ever since. In eight games following the season opener, Rising has averaged 251 passing and 31 rushing yards per game, and he has had more total touchdowns than interceptions in every appearance. The Utes' offense scored over 30 points in the six-game stretch following their visit to Florida—then mustered just 21 in a narrow win over Washington State when Rising didn't play due to injury. Upon his return to the lineup, they have bounced back immediately, scoring 45 on Arizona and 42 on Stanford.

What makes Rising so fascinating, and so impressive, is the fact that he has provided such a spark to Utah's offense despite the nature of his play. His deep ball is middling at best: he has 13 completions on it, seventh in the Pac-12, and his 10.3 yards per attempt on deep passes rank ahead of only Colorado's JT Shrout. His performance under pressure hasn't stood out either: he averages an unremarkable 5.4 yards per attempt in such situations, and he hasn't thrown a touchdown under pressure all season. Rising's success—the key to the Utes' excellent season and hopes of a conference title—has relied simply on making short passes (83.1% completion rate) and finding players in space between the numbers (8.8 yards per attempt overall, 11.2 yards per attempt on intermediate and deep passes down the middle).

Of course, picking up yardage that way also requires a receiving corps that can create separation and yards after catch, and the Utes have done so thanks in part to the emergence of Dalton Kincaid as a true receiving threat. This offense utilized both Kincaid and fellow tight end Brant Kuithe heavily in 2021, taking advantage of their differing skill sets. In that season, Kincaid's high reception rate (80.6%) but low yards after catch (4.1 per reception) made him an ideal complement to Kuithe, who had a low reception rate (69.4%) but could create more separation (6.2 yards after catch per reception). With Kuithe injured earlier this year, however, Utah has needed a more balanced performance from their remaining star tight end, and Kincaid has delivered. While maintaining a strong catch rate (76.9%), he has jumped to 5.4 yards after catch per reception and already has seven touchdowns this year, just one fewer than last season in four fewer games. The Utes put him to work against USC, a game in which he caught all 16 targets for 234 yards, the second-highest receiving total in program history; they could easily do so again in this game.

The Ducks have the offensive pieces to keep up with anything Utah throws at them, but finding a way to keep Rising and Kincaid in check will be difficult. No defense has faced a higher pass rate than Oregon's, and they have struggled despite knowing opponents will go through the air on nearly three-fifths of their plays—Oregon is 116th in EPA and 119th in success rate allowed on passes. Top corner Christian Gonzalez has been a surehanded defender, with only two misses on 35 attempted tacklers, but most of the Ducks' defensive backfield has struggled to lock down opposing receivers after the catch. Utah's targets will particularly hope to create mismatches with linebackers Noah Sewell and Jeffrey Bassa, who have missed six and eight tackles in coverage, respectively. If they can't step up, creating those plays for extra yardage is a clear path to offensive success—and perhaps a ticket to Las Vegas—for the Utes.

Watch for:

  • Can Utah's passing attack take advantage of the Oregon defense's struggles with following through on passing downs (127th in EPA, 130th in success rate)?
  • Can a decent Oregon defensive front (29th in line yards per carry allowed) hold off the Utes' stalwart offensive line (10th in line yards per carry)?
  • How will Utah's run defense (99th in success rate and 115th in explosiveness) try to handle the Ducks' daunting run game (first in EPA and success rate, second in explosiveness)?

FEI Outright Pick: Utah by 3.2.

FEI Picks: Week 12

Favorite Spread Underdog FEI Pick FEI
Pick ATS
Preston's
Pick ATS
TCU -2.5 at Baylor TCU TCU TCU
at Michigan -17.5 Illinois Michigan Michigan Illinois
at Louisville -4.5 NC State Louisville Louisville Louisville
at Oklahoma -7.5 Oklahoma State Oklahoma Oklahoma State Oklahoma State
USC -2.5 at UCLA USC USC UCLA
Utah -2.5 at Oregon Utah Utah Utah

FEI's picks ATS last week: 4-2.

FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 25-38-1.

Preston's picks ATS last week: 4-2.

Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 34-31-1.

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