National championship 2023: Five keys to TCU shocking Georgia and winning the College Football Playoff

No. 3 TCU hopes to capture the program’s first national championship since 1938 as it faces the daunting task of overcoming No. 1 Georgia on Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Calling TCU an underdog in this game would be an understatement. College football has only held national championship games for 25 years, and the Horned Frogs are by far the most unlikely squad to ever participate in one. TCU is playing against the defending national champions and the Las Vegas betting line has fluctuated around two touchdowns.

The good news for the Horned Frogs is that they are no strangers to embracing the underdog role. TCU pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the College Football Playoff after racing past No. 2 Michigan 51-45 as an 8-point underdog in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal. The Frogs were also picked No. 7 in the preseason Big 12 poll, and did not receive a single preseason AP Top 25 vote. TCU coach Sonny Dykes earned CBS Sports Coach of the Year honors for the incredible turnaround he orchestrated in his first season at the helm.

The vaunted Bulldogs are easily the biggest test TCU has faced in the modern era — even bigger than the vanquished Wolverines. To have a chance, the Horned Frogs will have to play the game of their lives. Here are five keys that could decide the game in TCU’s favor.

1. Counter the tight ends

Georgia’s defense may get the headlines, but the offense may be even more ruthlessly efficient. Everything the Bulldogs do revolves around utilizing star tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, who are just as comfortable running routes down the field as mashing linebackers while on blocking duty.

Simply put, TCU does not have a matchup for those players on its roster. Linebackers Dee Winters and Jamoi Hodge each hold a coverage grade below 60 from Pro Football Focus. Converted wide receiver Shadrach Banks might step into the lineup and play some key snaps against Bowers, but stopping Georgia’s offense will be a full team effort.

TCU’s 3-3-5 defensive system is built to attack from unorthodox angles, and that was on full display in the win over Michigan. Georgia is a different animal, though, and defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie will have to come up with a plan to contain the tight ends without giving up in run defense.

2. Compete up front

While TCU had a path to victory against Michigan, the actual game script was a shock. The conventional logic assumed that the Wolverines would pulverize TCU inside. Instead, TCU was the more physical team.

TCU’s interior offensive line feasted and paved the way for 263 yards rushing despite losing star running back Kendre Miller to an injury. Now, the test gets even more difficult as All-American guard Steve Avila will be lined up against likely top-five NFL Draft pick Jalen Carter on the inside.

Georgia is going to win the battle against TCU’s offensive line; the talent and depth is simply too overwhelming. However, the Frogs have to hold their own and create opportunities for the running game and quarterback Max Duggan to get going. If TCU can knock the ‘Dawgs off their path — like Ohio State did — there are opportunities to be found down the field.

3. Win the explosive game battle

TCU entered the College Football Playoff as, statistically, the most explosive offense in the field. Ironically, the Frogs had half the amount of explosive plays as Michigan in their win, although big plays by wide receiver Quentin Johnston and running back Emari Demarcado helped seal the game.

Against a defense as physical as Georgia, TCU has to hit a few chunk plays to keep the defense honest. The Bulldogs held Ohio State to just three explosive plays, a rate that ranked in the 16th percentile. On the other end, Georgia had 11 explosive plays, which rated in the 99th percentile.

Ohio State has enough weapons that dinking and dunking down the field was almost enough to come away with a victory. TCU does not have a full complement of NFL playmakers around the field, so turning singles into triples is key.

4. Feed Quentin Johnston

Johnston is projected as the consensus first wide receiver off the board in the 2023 NFL Draft, and is rated as high as the No. 4 overall pick by CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso.

“Johnston isn’t a home run, top-five prospect but has the measurables and big-play ability to go this high for a team in need of more receiver reinforcement,” Trapasso writes of Johnston.

Over the last two games, LSU and Ohio State have proven that Georgia’s secondary is achievable with the right game plan. Before going out with a concussion, Marvin Harrison Jr. toasted Georgia corner Kelee Ringo for 106 yards and two touchdowns. Malik Nabers and Kayshon Boutte also combined for 235 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia in the SEC title game.

Duggan isn’t a pure pocket passer, but he needs to be ready to stand back and deliver against an interior pass rush. If Johnston gets going, it opens up opportunities for Taye Barber, Derius Davis and countless others down the field.

5. Keep the magic going

The last time a team made anywhere near this unexpected a run to the national championship game was Auburn in 2013. All that took was the miraculous Kick Six and the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, maybe the most unbelievable combination of lucky plays in the history of college football.

The Frogs have been more consistent than that Auburn team, but they are no stranger to good fortune. TCU successfully executed a fire-drill field goal to shock rival Baylor as the clock ran out. Miller broke off a 75-yard touchdown run to outduel Texas running back Bijan Robinson in Austin. Even in his lone loss, Duggan put together one of the most electric, individual drives of the season to force overtime.

TCU is the biggest underdog in national championship game history. The Frogs would be the most unlikely champion since Georgia Tech and Colorado split the title in 1990. There’s nothing to lose. Let’s see what you’ve got, Frogs.

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