In the tightest pair of semifinals in the history of the College Football Playoff, both the biggest favorite and the biggest long shot in the field advanced. Contrast, then, might be an appropriate descriptor for the national final between the TCU Horned Frogs and Georgia Bulldogs at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, on Monday.
No. 3 TCU opened the New Year’s Eve slate with, in the words of coach Sonny Dykes, “a hell of a football game.” The Horned Frogs’ shootout victory over No. 2 Michigan marked the third instance in the playoff era of a team taking at least 7.5 points to not only cover, but win outright.1 The “smash fest” predicted by Wolverines quarterback JJ McCarthy never materialized in Glendale, Arizona. Instead, the Horned Frogs’ 3-3-5 defensive system tamed the nation’s preeminent offensive line and stoned the Michigan ground attack a season-high 12 times at or behind the line of scrimmage. After a week of far too many broadcast conversations about “physicality,” Michigan was held to 65 yards after contact, nearly 30 fewer than it had amassed in any other game all season. McCarthy, who had thrown two interceptions over the previous seven games combined, had two passes returned for touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl. Not that it was a nice-and-neat performance – it never is with TCU. The chaos-smitten Horned Frogs withstood a late touchdown barrage to become the first team in at least 18 years to allow more than 31 second-half points to a top-five opponent and still win.
It was the latest unexpected chapter for TCU, which 14 months ago parted ways with Gary Patterson, the winningest coach in program history — a man who was honored with a statue on campus. during his tenure — as it finished 3-6 in conference play for the second time in three seasons. Dykes, Patterson’s successor, did not inherit a program with championship aspirations of any kind: TCU was given 200-1 playoff odds2 and was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 in the preseason media poll. No matter: The Air Raid acolyte has already delivered one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds in recent memory, bringing the Horned Frogs to within a game of their first national title since the knitted uniform was phased out.
In the New Year’s Eve nightcap, an eerily timed field goal attempt pulled wide in the final seconds to cement a 1-point win for top-ranked Georgia over No. 4 Ohio State. With poise befitting the defending national champions, the Bulldogs twice rallied from 14-point deficits to advance to a third national final in the past six seasons. Since 2004, teams that entered the fourth quarter trailing top-four opponents by two touchdowns — as Georgia did in the Peach Bowl — had lost 516 of a possible 522 games. But mature quarterback play from Stetson Bennett IV led the Bulldogs to three scoring drives over the final 11 minutes, including a go-ahead 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds remaining. Mortality was a unique look for the Bulldogs, who have experienced just three single-digit outcomes in the past 29 games.3
Georgia’s return to the national final does not come as much of a surprise to those who have watched the Bulldogs disassemble opponents this season. Meanwhile, not even the most loyal fans in Fort Worth could have envisioned TCU at the summit.4 But all the same, TCU is one win away from a storybook ending unlike anything produced in the modern era.
Of course, it stands to reason that the biggest long shot to appear in the playoff (much less win it) would have very few on-paper advantages over a titan. According to ESPN’s efficiency ratings, Georgia has the most efficient offense and defense, with TCU only holding the edge in special teams. There’s a reason the Bulldogs are 70 percent favorites in our forecast model.
In five games against top-25 defenses this season,5 Georgia’s offense has scored 20 touchdowns, 11 of which came in the two most recent outings. Bennett, a Heisman finalist, is protected by projected first-round left tackle prospect Broderick Jones and throws to the best pair of tight ends in the country: Mackey Award winner Brock Bowers and possible first-round pick Darnell Washington.6 In total, this is arguably Georgia’s best offense in the playoff era.
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Dykes’ offense at TCU is led by Heisman runner-up Max Duggan at QB and Quentin Johnston, perhaps the best wide receiver prospect in the country, catching passes. In five games against top-25 defenses,7 the Horned Frogs produced 21 offensive touchdowns, with most of the fireworks reserved for the games’ final 30 minutes. Only Michigan and Ohio State averaged more second-half points than TCU (20.3), which at times appeared to believe first-half deficits were a requirement. With a dual-threat maestro in Duggan,8 balance is critical to the TCU offense. Dykes’ offense was thrown off-kilter when all-conference running back Kendre Miller left in the first half against Michigan due to a knee injury. It remains to be seen if Miller will be healthy enough to play in the national final, which would be a significant loss for an offense that ranked in the top 25 in EPA per rush this season.
Defensively, this is Georgia’s fourth-best unit in the playoff era by defensive efficiency, an absurd testament to the machine-like system refined in Athens by coach Kirby Smart. Last season, the Bulldogs had a record five defensive players selected in the first round of the NFL draft. This season, they reloaded and once again set the standard in the SEC. That said, the teeth of the Georgia defense struggled to contain Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud in the semifinal and is coming off a performance in which it allowed the highest adjusted completion rate (77.1 percent) and third-lowest tackle rate (81 percent) of the season. It might not be much easier for Georgia to get home against TCU, which kept Duggan upright for nearly the entire game against a Michigan front line that finished the regular season tied for second in the Big Ten in sacks, while the Horned Frogs gashed the Wolverines. for 263 yards rushing.
The welcome mat is rarely rolled out for first-time playoff participants. Three of the four most recent novices9 each lost by more than 20 points. Under a first-year coach, as a representative of a conference that was 0-4 in the playoff era, TCU played its semifinal with house money and cashed in. The reward is almost every possible disadvantage in a matchup with Georgia, which won its 80th game under Smart on Saturday. Oddsmakers are well aware: The Bulldogs opened as 13.5-point favorites with a chance to become the third team in the playoff era to go 15-0 and win the national championship.10 But that line is on-brand for the Horned Frogs, an overlooked, undervalued roller coaster of a team that openly acknowledges the haves-and-have-nots dynamic in the sport with an acceptance of its traditional place among the latter. A contrast-laden national final might be on tap to decide the championship, but the underdog might have one last trick left up its sleeve for the grand finale.
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