Two years ago, Utah’s first run to a Pac-12 championship was jump started by the Utes’ win at USC in early October.

Utah entered that game with a 2-2 record, was coming off a Pac-12-opening win over Washington State — a game where Utah trailed going into the fourth quarter — and was dealing with the tragic death of teammate Aaron Lowe, who was killed at a house party shortly after the win over the Cougars.

The Utes, though, earned their first win over USC in Los Angeles in over a century by outscoring the Trojans 28-7 over the second and third quarters en route to a 42-26 victory. 

It was also a breakout game for quarterback Cam Rising, who threw for 306 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another.

That game proved to be a catalyst to Utah winning its first Pac-12 championship and earning its first Rose Bowl bid in school history.

Last year, a pair of victories over a highly ranked USC squad — including one in the Pac-12 title game — defined the Utes’ second-straight conference title.

Several teams, including back-to-back defending champion Utah, are expected to contend for the Pac-12 football championship this year.

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Could the Utes’ trip to USC this season affect not only the Pac-12 race, but the College Football Playoff landscape as well?

247 Sports’ Brad Crawford predicts it very well could.

Crawford released his list of the 23 most meaningful games for the 2023 season, and that includes Utah playing at USC on Oct. 21.

Crawford puts the final regular-season game between Utah and USC before the Trojans bolt to the Big Ten at No. 19 on his list.

“There are several can’t-miss Pac-12 rematches, but considering the bad blood between the Utes and Trojans after Utah’s pair of victories in this setting last season, we’re all in for this one,” Crawford wrote.

In Utah’s first win over USC last season, the Utes rallied after being down 21-7 early in the second quarter to win 43-42 when Rising scored on a two-point conversion keeper with under a minute to play.

In the Pac-12 championship game, the Utes didn’t need any last-second big plays to win — Utah outscored USC 23-7 in the fourth quarter to win going away, 47-24.

In a year where USC went 11-3 and was squarely in the College Football Playoff conversation, those two losses to the Utes ruined the Trojans’ playoff hopes.

“The Utes eviscerated USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game, which took Lincoln Riley’s team out of the Playoff mix. A hobbled Caleb Williams fought valiantly in that one, but USC’s defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. USC cannot afford to lose to the Utes again,” Crawford wrote.

In addition to Utah and USC, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State — all preseason top-25-caliber teams, according to various national outlets — are among the teams expected to be serious contenders for the Pac-12 championship this year.

As such, five other games involving Pac-12 games show up on Crawford’s list, including:

  • 22. Oregon State at Oregon (Nov. 24).
  • 16. USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 14).
  • 11. USC at Oregon (Nov. 11).
  • 9. Oregon at Washington (Oct. 14).
  • 7. Washington at USC (Nov. 4).

If Utah were to beat USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in October, it would be the Utes’ fourth-straight win over the Trojans. The series has been nearly even since Utah joined the Pac-12 — since 2011, USC holds a slight 7-6 edge.

If the two teams were to meet again for the Pac-12 championship, Utah could potentially win five straight over USC before the Trojans (along with UCLA) leave for the Big Ten Conference in 2024.

Crawford is far from the only media member highlighting the importance of the Utah-USC game this year.

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ESPN’s Heather Dinich tabbed the matchup as the game to be most excited for in the 2023 season, because of the CFP implications it could have.

Last year, Utah handed USC its only two losses before the bowl season — the Trojans also lost in the Cotton Bowl — and despite the earlier loss to the Utes, USC was still in contention for a playoff spot heading into the Pac-12 championship.

“Lincoln Riley would’ve had a playoff team in his first season as coach if the Trojans hadn’t gone 0-2 against Utah, so the Oct. 21 game between them is the one to watch,” she wrote.

“If USC can win at Notre Dame on Oct. 14, there’s a great chance the Trojans will be undefeated when Utah comes to L.A. This is USC’s final fall in the Pac-12. Can Riley leave a lasting impression in the league by boosting it into the CFP before bolting for the Big Ten? The home game against Utah will help answer that question.”

On3’s Jesse Simonton identified the USC-Utah game as the Trojans’ most important in conference play — even in a year where during the final month of the regular season, USC sandwiches home games against Washington and USC around a road game at Oregon.

The game against Utah starts off a particularly difficult conference stretch for the Trojans.

Lincoln Riley’s team has a backloaded schedule this fall, with a six-week gauntlet that actually starts a week earlier at Notre Dame. The game against Utah kicks off five conference games — including four against the best four teams on USC’s slate in 2023,” Simonton wrote.

“Beating the back-to-back conference champs could go a long way in determining who makes it to Las Vegas the first weekend of December.”

Simonton, conversely, had Utah’s opponent the week after the USC game, Oregon, as the Utes’ most important conference game. Utah hosts the Ducks at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Oct. 28.

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“Utah plays at USC the week prior, so depending on what happens against the Trojans, Kyle Whittingham’s team could be looking at securing back-to-back huge wins — valeting the Utes to the top of the Pac-12 standings,” Simonton wrote.

Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Borba, meanwhile, called the USC-Utah game the most marquee game in the Pac-12 this season.

“Utah is looking to three-peat as champions, while USC is looking to win one more Pac-12 Championship on their way out. Realistically this could be the preview of the Pac-12 Championship and these two teams could face off again, but with how tough the competition is next season you don’t want to be the team waiting for tie breakers to go your way,” Borba wrote. 

“Two teams with playoff chances and a lot of animosity towards one another are the main reasons why I have this as the top game.”

Utah players celebrate a win over Southern California in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. | Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
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