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USC at Utah
Editor's Note: Don't miss out on Joe Nelson's weekly Thursday breakdown this fall on Plus, check out his expert college football selections as well.
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After a big upset in the Pac-12 last Thursday night there is another big game out west spotlighted this week to kick off the football weekend. USC and Utah played a very tight game early last season with the Trojans prevailing in a wild finish, creating big controversy in the gambling world with a bizarre final play. It has been nearly 100 years since USC has had to play in Salt Lake City however. Here is a look at that big game as well as two other Thursday night college football match-ups.

Matchup: USC Trojans (3-1 SU, 1-3 ATS) at Utah Utes (2-2 SU, 1-3 ATS)
Venue: Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah
Date: Thursday, October, 4 2012
Time/TV: 9:00 PM ET – ESPN
Line: USC -14, Over/Under 47
Last Meeting: 2011, USC (-8½) 23-14 at USC

The Trojans were a very popular pick to be playing in Miami in January but there have been some struggles early in the season. Stanford knocked off USC in mid-September and completely changed the trajectory of the season for USC. This is a team that can still win the Pac-12 and still play in a BCS bowl, but getting to the national championship game will be much tougher and there are still many big games ahead.

One of the preseason favorites for the Heisman was USC quarterback Matt Barkley. He has solid numbers in 2012 but he has thrown five interceptions in four games and his 61 percent completion rate is well below last season’s mark. USC has two elite wide receivers that are posting great numbers but they have not been quite as prolific as many expected. The running game has been very good with Penn State transfer Silas Redd stepping in but USC is posting just 33 points per game and 422 yards per game, short of last year’s numbers.

Defense was not expected to be the strong point of this team but the numbers are good with just 17 points allowed per game this season. USC has produced 16 sacks and created 10 turnovers. The numbers could get worse as the conference season progresses but the run defense has been very effective with only 117 yards per game allowed on the ground.

Many thought Utah would win the Pac-12 South last season with USC on probation but the Utes went just 4-5 in conference play, losing at home in the finale against Colorado as big favorites to lose a spot in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes have been viewed as a sleeper in the conference again this season but the opening game was a disaster, losing to Arizona State 37-7 two week ago in Tempe.

Starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was injured early in the year and while back-up Jon Hays has a lot of experience he is not the same threat. Utah has struggled in the passing game as Hays has thrown for less than 500 yards in three games with only 59 percent completions. John White rushed for over 1,500 yards last season but it will be hard for the senior running back to match that this year as he has just 233 yards. He did miss the BYU game that Utah won and Utah has never lost when he eclipses 100 yards, so getting the running game going will be a key focal point for the Utes.

Utah has a veteran defense that has been better than last season despite the team being 2-2. Utah has allowed less than 330 yards per game but the secondary featuring four returning starters has come up with just two interceptions and few big plays. Utah has enough talent to remain a solid defensive team all season and is led by senior Star Lotulelei who can cause big problems on the interior line.

Utah will need to be stout defensively early and control the ball with the running game to stay in this game. If USC scores quickly and is able to build a lead it will be very difficult for Utah to present a comeback threat. Utah will likely need a few turnovers or big plays on special teams to have a legitimate shot at an upset but if they are able to hang around early they can keep this game competitive.

Line Movement: Initial offerings priced this game with USC as a 13-point favorite with the line climbing up to -14. The total has dropped slightly from 47½ to 47 and USC is -600 on the moneyline.

Last Meeting: In 2011 these teams faced off early in the year for just the second game of the season for both teams. Utah was able to get some big plays with three turnovers to stay in the game and on the final play of the game a 41-yard field goal from Utah’s Coleman Peterson was blocked by Matt Kalil. A successful kick would have meant overtime at 17-17 but the block was returned for a touchdown by Torin Harris that would have made the final 23-14, a key play with a spread that was between 7½ and 8½ for most. It was one of the more memorable games from a betting standpoint because the officials did not indicate a touchdown on the play and called a penalty for USC players running onto the field before the play was over. Many sportsbooks posted a 17-14 final and paid off some of the wagers. The Pac-12 declared that the touchdown counted a few hours later however, changing the scenario for both the side bets and most total bets.

Series History: Last year’s meeting was the first since 2001 when Utah beat USC 10-6 in the Las Vegas Bowl. USC had previously defeated Utah 28-21 in the 1993 Freedom Bowl. USC has not played in Salt Lake City since a 51-0 win in 1917.

USC Historical Trends: Since 2008 USC is just 7-13 ATS as a road favorite but they are 4-4 ATS in that role under Lane Kiffin. The Trojans are 8-5 ATS in road games since 2010 but going further back USC is on an ugly 13-22 ATS run as a road favorite of seven or more points.

Utah Historical Trends: The Utes have been one of the great underdog performers in the last two decades, going 57-28-2 ATS since 1990. Since Kyle Whittingham took over the program Utah is 17-12-1 ATS as an underdog, including going 5-2 as a home underdog.

There are two additional games Thursday night this week:

East Carolina at Central Florida 8:00 PM ET
Central Florida -11½, Over/Under 47

East Carolina leads Conference USA at 2-0 but there are certainly red flags in the statistical profile as the Pirates were out-gained in each of their first four games until last week’s home win over UTEP. Both of these teams have taken on challenging non-conference games with East Carolina losing to South Carolina and North Carolina, while Central Florida has lost fairly close games with Ohio State and Missouri. UCF is expected to be one of the top teams in Conference USA this season but the Knights are ineligible for the postseason. Edges on both sides of the ball appear dramatic for UCF but last season East Carolina won in this match-up 38-31.

Arkansas State at Florida International 7:30 PM ET
Arkansas State -1, Over/Under 59½

Arkansas State won the Sun Belt last season with a perfect 8-0 conference record. New head coach Gus Malzahn is 0-1 in league play after the Red Wolves lost at home to Western Kentucky. The defensive numbers look suspect for Arkansas State but they played Oregon and Nebraska in early season losses. Florida International has a veteran team that was expected to compete well in the Sun Belt this season and after great non-conference success last season the Panthers are sitting at 1-4 overall after losing badly in the Sun Belt opener last week against Louisiana-Lafayette. Statistically Arkansas State has posted 110 more yards per game on offense between these teams and Florida International is playing without quarterback Jason Medlock. Last season Arkansas State won 34-16 in Jonesboro.

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