A point spread in college football came out on Sunday afternoon that raised eyebrows across the country. The 6-0, #4 ranked Utah Utes are traveling to USC to play the 3-3 Trojans who are coming off a hard fought loss at Notre Dame and are playing just their second game with an interim head coach after Steve Sarkisian was fired for all of his alcohol issues.
To mostly everyones surprise, the books posted the Trojans as a 3 point favorite, and that line has grown to 3.5 and even 4 points in some places, moving off of the most important number (3) in football handicapping.
How can a 3-3 team be giving to points to an undefeated, top 5 team? Let’s take a closer look as well as who you should be taking on Saturday night.
1: These two teams have almost identical points per game on offense and defense, and USC has played the much tougher schedule. The Trojans shocking loss to Washington as a 17 point favorite came right at the time when the Sarkisian situation completely melted down, so I’m willing to look at that result as an outlier. The other two Trojan losses came at Notre Dame and at Stanford, and in both games the Trojans had a second half lead. Both of those teams are in the top 10 in overall efficiency according to the ESPN rating system.
2: Utah has been a shaky 6-0 team lately, with close wins at home over Cal and Arizona State. Their road win at Oregon doesn’t look nearly as impressive now that the Ducks have shown they are not the same team from years past. An opening night win at home over Michigan was another great win for the program, but the jury is still out on the Wolverines now that they have lost to the two best teams they’ve faced this season and fattened their record against lesser teams.
That Michigan State final play was definitely a fluke, but the Spartans moved the ball well for most of the day but have no kicking game to speak of so they continually went for it on 4th down even when the situation wasn’t ideal. My point is, I’m still not sold on the fact that beating Michigan at home (in Harbaugh’s first game no less) was as marquee a win as people would think.
3: USC’s offense will be the best Utah has seen all season. Cal would be the closest to the Trojans attack they’ve seen so far, and the Golden Bears racked up 467 yards of total offense on Utah’s defense. Cal would have likely won that game, but they had 7 turnovers (6 turnovers and a turnover on downs) in their 30-24 loss. USC has a potent passing attack led by QB Cody Kessler and WR Juju Smith-Schuster that is poised to put up similar numbers to what Cal did to the Utah defense.
4: Utah’s offense revolves around RB Davonte Booker, who has had 20+ carries in all 6 games this year and 30+ carries in half of those games. Arizona State held him in check for most of the game and were able to hang around until he finally popped a long touchdown run late. Last weeks game was the only game all season that Utah has trailed in and the deficit only got to 4 points. If the Trojans build a two possession lead, Utah would be forced to move away from their game plan and put the ball in the hands QB Travis Wilson. That’s a recipe for a game that could quickly get away from the Utes.
5: The betting public sees Utah getting 3.5 points as an early Christmas gift and have lined up to back them to the tune of 80% of the total bets placed. Meanwhile, the line moved from 3 to 3.5 which is a huge line move especially when the action is on the other side. Moving off of 3 points typically takes some large action, since that’s the most common margin of victory in football and is such a key number. If it smells like a sucker bet and looks like a sucker bet…
6: There’s a revenge factor in play as well. USC had beaten Utah in their first three meetings since Utah joined the PAC 12. Last season however, Utah beat the Trojans on a last second TD in Salt Lake City. The Trojans will have extra motivation after being the victim of such a huge win in history of the Utah football program.
Verdict: These teams are much closer than their records indicate, and Sarkisian’s exit from the program is actually a positive given the stories that came out about the severity of his alcohol issues. Utah is far less battle tested and not equipped to make a comeback once USC hits a couple big scoring plays in the passing game. Throw in the revenge factor as well as the all important reverse line move after the public as fully supported Utah and this has the makings of a double digit USC win. The action is split on the total, but that number has climbed as well, giving you more reason to back the team with the much more explosive offense.
USC 45 Utah 30 (USC -3.5 and over 60)