7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Georgia -13, Over/Under: 62
As difficult as it may be to fathom following last weekend’s WILD pair of semifinals, there is still one game left to play and there can be only ONE team to hoist the National Championship trophy, as the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs battle the surprising third-ranked TCU Horned Frogs in the CFP National Title Game from SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Coming into last weekend’s national semifinal, if there was one school that was deemed universally fortunate to be competing in this playoff, it was absolutely TCU (13-1, 9-0 in Big XII). After all, the Horned Frogs sputtered down the stretch and failed to win their conference championship, coming up short in an overtime affair against Kansas State. They also don’t possess anything close to the history or prestige of the other three semifinalists, with each of them counting themselves among the bluest of bluebloods with multiple national championships to their credit. However, as we stated in last weekend’s post, there is rarely any more powerful motivator in sports than the underdog card, which is something that (Head Coach) Sonny Dykes had put to brilliant use during the lead up to his troops’ improbable 51-45 triumph over Michigan in the first national semifinal (MUCH more on that one in a bit). In the meantime, we’re going to shed some light on Dykes and how he managed to take a program that appeared to have plateaued under the previous regime. As far as Cinderella stories go, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one than that of Texas Christian, who after parting ways with (longtime Head Coach) Gary Patterson, were tabbed to finish in the middle of the Big XII and didn’t even enjoy a spot in the rankings until early October. After spending the last four seasons at SMU, Dykes returned to Fort Worth where he spent 2017 as an Offensive Analyst. To be clear, it’s not as if the 53-year-old’s arrival was met with much fanfare, for in twelve years at Louisiana Tech, California, and Southern Methodist he amassed a 71-63 record (.529), with just six winning seasons and only one win in a bowl to his credit. However, Dykes has elevated these toads to heights unseen in program history, with his wide-open spread attack proving to be the toast of the lone star state en route to claiming National Coach of the Year honors. A longtime disciple of the departed Mike Leach (R.I.P.) and his Air Raid scheme, Dykes has taken an Offense that managed to post just 28.7 points per game on 436.0 total yards, including 240.0 through the air, only to improve exponentially with 40.3 points (6th in FBS), 473.0 total yards, including 273.0 yards via the pass and another 204.5 yards via the run. The biggest recipient of his presence has been (Junior Quarterback) Max Duggan, who after overcoming a QB competition over the summer ultimately emerged as a Heisman finalist, completing 63.7% of his attempts for 3,546 yards on a healthy 8.9 yards per pass, with thirty-two touchdowns opposed to just six interceptions, while rushing for 461 yards and another eight scores. Duggan (pictured below) has surpassed 300 passing yards five times this season, while tossing three or more touchdowns on seven occasions thus far. As you can imagine, there is plenty of talent surrounding the redhead, with (Sophomore Tailback) Kendre Miller rushing for 1,399 yards and seventeen touchdowns on a healthy 6.2 yards per carry, while (Junior Receiver) Quintez Johnston has emerged as a big-play threat with fifty-nine receptions for 1,066 yards and six scores on an electrifying 18.1 yards per catch. However, you don’t get to this stage without a Defense, and the Horned Frogs are no exception. (Defensive Coordinator) Joe Gillespie was a Broyles award semifinalist twice over the last three years and has proven to be a solid choice by Dykes, with his preferred 3-35 stack scheme making it difficult to throw against successfully. Granted, they’ve given up a wealth of yardage this season (395.3), but they’ve forced twenty-two turnovers, sixteen of which have been interceptions, including three in last weekend’s victory over the Wolverines. Takeaways are huge in the Big XII where teams move the football so easily, which is why this scheme has begun to work as well as it has; (Sophomore Safety) Bud Clark alongside (Junior Cornerbacks) Josh Newton and Tre’vius Hodges-Tomlinson have been ballhawks with a total of eleven interceptions, and thirty defended passes, and a pair of touchdown returns, including one of their two defensive scores from New Year’s Eve.
When we last saw TCU, they overcame the odds and earned the validation that the aforementioned Dykes stated that thy were searching for, dumping second-ranked Michigan in last Saturday’s thrilling 51-45 semifinal. This one was INSANE, folks, and though the Wolverines came back time and again, it was impossible to leave that affair without holding a large degree of respect for the Horned Frogs, who were sizeable underdogs (+8.5 at kickoff). The Big XII denizens made their presence felt early and often in this one, stopping Big Blue on downs on their first drive of the game, before taking a stunning 14-0 lead Clark picked off J.J. McCarthy and returned forty-one yards to the house, followed by a 12-play, 78-yard drive concluding with short scamper into the end zone by Duggan. Though the veteran QB would be picked on his next possession, the toads struck right back forcing and recovering a fumble at the goal line, after a Michigan touchdown was overturned by replay. After trading punts, Dykes’ troops continued to dissect the opposing Defense, marching eighty-three yards downfield in ten plays, as Duggan found (Senior Receiver) Taye Barber for a six-yard score to extend their lead to 21-3, before the Big Ten champions tacked on a field goal right before halftime. The Wolverines would eventually kick things into higher gear in the second half, drilling another field goal before picking Duggan off and adding their first touchdown of the night, though Duggan would respond right back with a 46-yard catch and run courtesy of Johnston, only for (Senior Tailback) Emari Demercado to hit paydirt five plays later. This continued to a wild stretch in which EIGHT touchdowns were scored on nine drives, with a record FORTY-FOUR points being scored between the two sides in the third quarter alone. Finally, as Michigan cut the deficit to six points with 3:18 left to play, TCU bled the clock down to fifty-two seconds remaining before punting the pigskin back to their opponent, who ultimately flamed out at their own 25-yard line. In the end, the two sides combined for ninety-six points, 1,016 total yards, including 605 through the air, with a combined SIX turnovers between them. Duggan completed 14-of-29 passes for 225 yards, with two touchdowns and interceptions apiece, while rushing for fifty-seven yards and two scores. Demercado erupted for 150 yards and a touchdown of his own on just seventeen carries, while Johnston reeled in six receptions for 163 yards and that aforementioned score. However, despite giving up 528 total yards of offense, credit goes to Gillespie’s Defense, who spent weeks hearing how their “gimmick” scheme would get smashed by the Wolverines’ physical ground game, only to create a wealth of havoc at the line of scrimmage and completely take them out of their game, particularly during the first half. Looking to tonight’s final, TCU is making their thirty-sixth appearance in a bowl, owning an 18-16-1 record (.529) with last weekend’s Fiesta Bowl marking their first postseason affair in four years. From a betting perspective, the Horned Frogs are 6-3-1 against the spread over their last ten games overall, though just 5-4-1 against the spread in their last ten outings away from Fort Worth. However, they have covered the line in five of their last six contests after rushing for at least 200 yards in the previous game, while also covering four consecutive meetings against non-conference opponents, with both scenarios being the case tonight. This is also the fifth all-time encounter between these schools, with Georgia winning each of them, including the most recent, a 31-23 affair back in the 2016 Liberty Bowl. On the injury front, this team is largely healthy, with the only expected absence to be that of (Sophomore Receiver) Quincy Brown, who has been out since mid-September with an undisclosed ailment.
Meanwhile, the college football landscape may have seen a wealth of change over the past year, but NOTHING has changed for Georgia (14-0, 8-0 in SEC), absolutely NOTHING. Just as they did a year ago, the Bulldogs marched through the regular season unbeaten on their way to the playoff, as (Head Coach) Kirby Smart appears to have successfully built his alma mater into a bonafide monster in Athens. However, whereas they were stunned by Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship, this year’s incarnation of the Dawgs bested LSU on that same stage in a 50-30 route little over a month ago, setting up a wild and crazy semifinal with Ohio State (much more on this one shortly). However, before we get into that thrilling battle of bluebloods, let’s take a moment to discuss how they got here. If there was one major question that needed to be answered coming into this campaign, it was how Smart would replace EIGHT starters from the most dominant defense in the country; Georgia allowed the fewest points in the land (10.2) on just 269.0 total yards per game, including 190.0 yards against the pass and another 79.0 yards versus the run in 2021, with EIGHT selected in last spring’s NFL Draft, including FIVE in the first round alone. Well, a little-known fact about this group is that no team played more underclassmen on this side of the football last season than the Bulldogs, with Smart and his staff doing a tremendous job of developing his depth by rotating personnel, which has been very evident this season. The Dawgs have relinquished just 14.8 points (5th in FBS) on 300.4 total yards, including 224.6 yards against the pass and another 80.0 yards versus the run, though have shown some worrying signs over the last two outings, in which they’ve been torched for seventy-one points and 1,016 total yards against the Tigers and Buckeyes. The issue has been the pass defense, which has been uncharacteristically eviscerated on 60.4% passing for 850 yards and seven touchdowns. Granted, most of that yardage against LSU came while they held a huge lead in the second half of the SEC title game, but as we’ll cover shortly in regard to the national semifinal, they had a hell of a time containing Ohio State’s Receivers. Sure, they may not have produced as many takeaways (16) and are waaaaaaay off their sack total from a year ago with thirty, but they’ve been able to make up for that with a more experienced Offense led by (Super Senior Quarterback) Stetson Bennett. Of course, at this point we all know the story of “the Mailman”, who after returning to the program as a walk-on back in 2019 patiently waited for his opportunity until striking gold in 2021, eventually earning Offensive MVP of both the National Semifinal and Final. Returning to Athens for his final year of eligibility, Bennett (pictured below) has completed 67.9% of his passes for 3,823 yards on 8.9 yards per attempt with twenty-three touchdowns in comparison to seven interceptions, while proving to be an underrated in the red zone with another eight scores of the rushing variety. As usual, there has been a platoon of talented Tailbacks behind him, led by (Junior) Kenny McIntosh with 779 yards and ten touchdowns on a healthy 5.5 yards per carry, with the likes of (Sophomores) Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton not far behind him with 741 and 557 yards respectively. However, where McIntosh differs from the rest of his teammates in the Backfield is as a pass-catcher, reeling in forty-two receptions for 506 yards and another pair of touchdowns. And speaking of pass-catchers, (Sophomore Tight End) Brock Bowers erupted as a true Freshman a year ago, establishing himself as the nation’s top player at his position, leading the Dawgs in catches (56), receiving yards (790, and touchdown receptions (6), while (Sophomore Wideout) Ladd McKonkey has posted fifty-three catches for 674 yards and five scores of his own, with both players also factoring into the run game, not just as blockers, but as threats of their own with a combined 214 yards and five touchdowns of their own. Add it all up and this team has the talent, depth, and experience to not only become the first repeat National Champion of the playoff era (2014), but the first to repeat as National Champions since Alabama did it back in 2011. Of course, Smart is well acquainted with that fact, for he served as the Crimson Tide’s Defensive Coordinator during that period.
When we last saw Georgia, they needed every bit of the full sixty minutes to escape fourth-ranked Ohio State, but they managed to do so in a 42-41 classic that was just as thrilling as the semifinal that preceded it. The Buckeyes proved that they meant business early, scoring three straight touchdowns on as many drives to take a surprising 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter. The Bulldogs would eventually take the lead with seventeen unanswered points, as both McIntosh and Bennett breached the end zone. The Scarlet & Gray would strike right back as CJ Stroud rifled a 37-yard touchdown to Xavier Johnson to take a 28-24 advantage at intermission, and would go on to OWN the third period, shutting out the defending champions and taking a commanding 38-24 lead. However, the Dawgs would stubbornly claw their way back into the affair, running off ten unanswered points of their own, highlighted by a 76-yard catch and run from Bennett to (Redshirt Freshman) Arian Smith, before finding (Sophomore Receiver) Ladd McKonkey for the two-point conversion. Now 38-35, Smart’s troops would hold the Big Ten denizens to a field goal, setting up a fateful 72-yard drive that required just five plays, culminating in a ten-yard strike from Bennett to (Sophomore Wideout) Adonai Mitchell to retake the lead for the first time since 1:44 mark of the second quarter. Starting from their own 25-yard line, Ohio State marched all the way t Georgia’s 32-yard line, setting themselves up for a potential game-winning 50-yard kick from (veteran Kicker) Noah Ruggles, who had drilled three earlier in the night, only for his final attempt to sail wide left of his target, officially ending the affair. When it was all said and done, the tow dies combined for a whopping EIGHTY-THREE points and 1,000 yards, including 746 from the two Quarterbacks. Bennett completed 23-of-34 passes for 398 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another score to boot. McIntosh accounted for 126 yards from scrimmage and that receiving score on jus ten touches, while Smith made the most of his three receptions, with 129 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, (Defensive Coordinator) Glen Schuman’s unit relinquished over 465 yards for the second consecutive game failing to permit more than 371 in any other game this year, though stiffened when they had to in second half. Looking to tonight’s matchup, Georgia is making their SIXTY-FIRST all-time appearance in a bowl, owning a stellar 36-21-3 record (.625) in these postseason affairs, including a 3-1 mark in the playoff. As for Smart, he owns a 7-2 record in such contests. From a betting perspective, the Bulldogs are 5-5 against the spread over their last ten games overall, while covering the spread in all but three of their last ten trips away from Athens. However, the streak continued last weekend, as they have now failed to cover the line in five consecutive encounters with non-conference opponents, which again is the case tonight. On the injury front, the Dawgs could be without a number of components on the offensive side of the football, including (Tight Ends) Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert, with the former dealing with a nagging sprained ankle and the latter suffering from an undisclosed ailment that sidelined him for last weekend’s Peach Bowl triumph. Furthermore, (Right Tackle) Earnest Greene is nursing a calf malady, making him questionable to participate in tonight’s national final.