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Will Utes and Ducks play things close to the vest or open up the playbook?

Saturday’s Big Game could just be Round 1 for the two teams. The Really Big Deal Game takes place Dec. 3 in Las Vegas

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Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Oregon coach Mario Cristobal shake hands after game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.

Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham and Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal shake hands after the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

This weekend’s game between No. 23-ranked Utah and third-ranked Oregon is being billed as The Big Game. It’s going to be televised nationally in prime time. A packed house is expected at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It’s being compared with the biggest games in Utah’s history. It’s considered the biggest Pac-12 game of the season, a matchup of the two division leaders.

Utah, Oregon TV

Utes on the air

No. 3 Oregon (9-1, 6-1)

at No. 23 Utah (7-3, 6-1)

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MST

Rice-Eccles Stadium


Radio: ESPN 700

So, with all that said, I hate to rain on the parade — but I’m going to do it anyway. There is one thing that undermines The Big Game that seems to have been largely overlooked: These teams will very likely meet again just 13 days later in The Really Big Deal Game — the Pac-12 championship game.

In other words, they’re probably going to do this all over again on Dec. 3 in Las Vegas, but with much more on the line.

All of which adds another element to Saturday’s game. The intrigue for Round 1 of the Oregon-Utah showdown is this: How much are these teams going to show each other, knowing that they’ve likely got to play again and, oh, by the way, all that’s riding on the outcome of Round 2 is a conference championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl or, if you’re Oregon, maybe a shot at the College Football Playoff.

Do they open up the playbook, pull out all the stops and win the battle but risk losing the war? Do they play conservatively? Do they save some schemes for Round 2? Do they run some plays to set up another play in the rematch?

This is a dilemma for the coaches; they’ve probably got to strike a delicate balance here — win the game, but maybe hold back a little something.

For practical purposes, both teams have all but locked up their Pac-12 division titles — Utah in the South Division and Oregon in the North. They need one more win to make it official, but both teams close the regular season at home against mediocre teams (Utah gets Colorado and Oregon gets Oregon State). So this game carries some weight from that perspective, but there is another opportunity for the loser.

Round 1 actually doesn’t mean that much for Utah other than the prestige of beating a top-five team; it’s a warmup. It will simply be a fun undercard bout to the main event. The Utes can lose this game and still get everything they want: a division title and a conference championship and the reward that comes with it: the Rose Bowl.

The Utes not only have the home-field advantage this week, they also can play loose and relaxed.

It is another matter entirely for the 9-1 Ducks. All the pressure is on them. They have a berth in the national playoff on the line. They can’t afford a loss — or even to look mediocre in the process of a win. They have to win this game, plus the season-finale against Oregon State a week later, plus the conference championship game to protect their No. 3 ranking and their claim to the national playoff. The Ducks already have one loss; another one would knock them down and out.

(Brief aside here: Is there any doubt which team the Pac-12 front office is hoping wins Saturday’s game? The Pac-12 is desperate to put one of its teams in the national playoff after a long absence and all the publicity about its poor performance and sliding reputation. Oregon is the league’s last hope.)

These next few weeks will answer the question of whether the Ducks are as good as their ranking. Are they the team that handed Ohio State its only loss of the season, or are they the team that lost three weeks later to lowly Stanford, a team Utah crushed 52-7 two weeks ago. Oregon has beaten Utah in three of their last four meetings (and six of their last eight).

Utah-Oregon Part 1 is only the first in a series of big games during the next three weeks as the season reaches a crescendo.