Ultimate National Championship Preview: Feisty TCU has earned its way to title game. Georgia is built to win it
Everything you need to know about Monday night’s championship collision between Georgia (14-0) and TCU (13-1) in Los Angeles.
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It’s been a quarter-century since college football formalized the concept of the “National Championship Game” for the first time under the banner of the BCS, and throughout that time the overriding fear has been that the sport will come to be dominated by a tiny handful of teams at the top. In 2023, that fear is embodied in the Georgia Bulldogs.
Kirby Smart’s Dawgs, back on the biggest stage for the second year in a row, are the blueprint for what a modern national champion looks like: An established power with a massive fan base, more money than it knows what to do with, and a year-in, year-out recruiting operation that stacks blue-chip classes like rings on a tree. Georgia boasts more 5-star recruits on its current roster (15) than any other team in America, and more than the entire Big 12 conference (11). It’s won 32 of its past 33, few of them close, and in the past 2 seasons alone has already beaten each of the other 5 schools that have appeared in a CFP Championship Game (Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Oregon). The Bulldogs touched down in L.A. with their air of inevitability fully intact, on the cusp of becoming the first repeat champs of the Playoff era and cementing their status as the sport’s reigning Death Star.
And then, there’s TCU: A living, thriving reminder that even now, anything can still happen.
There’s never been a national champion that looks quite like the Horned Frogs, whose presence on the big stage defies pretty much every precedent and assumption about what it takes to compete for a title in the modern era. The Frogs certainly had their moments in the Gary Patterson years, including
6 top-10 finishes in the decade spanning 2008-17. By the time Sonny Dykes took reins last December, though, the program was at its lowest point since the post-SWC wilderness period of the late 1990s. The Frogs were stale, nondescript, years removed from their last bid for national relevance. They weren’t even relevant in their own conference, coming in 6 games below .500 in Big 12 play over Patterson’s final 4 seasons. Everything about the situation pointed toward a rebuild that would take at least as long to bear fruit, if it ever did.
For his part, Dykes was a fairly boring hire coming off a good-not-great tenure at SMU, and got off to a boring start in Fort Worth: No splashy additions to the staff, no big-ticket roster moves via the transfer portal, no offseason waves whatsoever. Meanwhile, arguably the Frogs’ best players on offense and defense both portaled out, leaving a roster that comes nowhere near qualifying for the Blue-Chip Ratio. TCU ranks 32nd in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, immediately below Mississippi State, Georgia Tech, and Missouri. The Frogs didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP or Coaches’ polls, and were picked to finish 7th in the Big 12 by regional media – one spot better than they’d finished in 2021.
Other teams have made it this far under first-year head coaches. One of them, Auburn in 2013, even crashed the championship game only a year removed from a losing record. But no team has ever arrived at this stage from as far off the radar, with a head coach, talent base, and recent body of work as unassuming, as TCU in 2022. The Frogs, truly, have come from nowhere.
Maybe it’s fitting that the final test for an outfit vying to become the unlikeliest national champion in the modern era is an opponent that ranks among the likeliest. Officially, Georgia is a 12.5-point favorite, which if it holds through kickoff will go down as the largest point spread ever in a BCS or CFP championship game. (The previous record: 11 points, in the January 2003 meeting between heavily favored Miami and underdog Ohio State – a game won, of course, by the Buckeyes.) But an upset would register an order of magnitude higher than that. Beyond the initial shock wave, a TCU triumph stands to rattle the foundations of the whole title-chasing business: What a championship roster looks like, how one is assembled, who’s capable of winning big and who isn’t, how long it takes, and where the coach who gets it done comes from.
Because if Sonny Dykes can win it all in Year 1, at a private school with an enrollment of roughly 12,000 students, with essentially the same 3-star-laden lineup that just a year earlier failed to even qualify for a bowl game, then all rules are off. The door is wide open, everywhere. All that’s standing in the way is a red-and-black machine designed specifically to render the underdog spirit obsolete.
When TCU has the ball
Best players on the field
1. Georgia DL Jalen Carter (92.4 PFF grade | 7 TFLs | unanimous All-American)
2. TCU WR Quentin Johnston (77.5 PFF | 1,066 yards + 6 TDs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
3. TCU QB Max Duggan (87.1 PFF | 80.2 QBR | O’Brien Award)
4. TCU RB Kendre Miller* (85.3 PFF | 1,399 yards + 16 TDs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
5. Georgia DB Christopher Smith (77.2 PFF | 58 tackles + 3 INTs | unanimous All-American)
6. Georgia LB Jamon Dumas-Johnson (73.6 PFF | 66 tackles + 9 TFLs | Butkus Award finalist)
7. Georgia DB Javon Bullard (79.4 PFF | 45 tackles + 7 TFLs)
8. TCU OG Steve Avila (71.1 PFF | 0 sacks allowed | consensus All-American)
9. Georgia CB Kelee Ringo (70.0 PFF | 2 INTs | 2nd-team All-SEC)
10. TCU WR Taye Barber (71.0 PFF | 605 yards + 5 TDs)
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*questionable due to injury
TCU’s priority: Keeping it balanced
Max Duggan‘s Fiesta Bowl performance was a mixed bag. On one hand, nagging doubts about his consistency as a straight drop-back passer were borne out: He was just 8-for-21 on non-play-action attempts, 4-for-13 on attempts of 10+ yards downfield, and 2-for-8 on 3rd-down conversions (including a sack). Half of his 14 completions on the day were caught behind the line of scrimmage, including both touchdowns. Nearly half of his 225 passing yards came on 2 plays — an egregious coverage bust by Michigan that left his best receiver, Quentin Johnston, wide open for a 32-yard gain in the first half, and a shallow cross that Johnston busted for a 76-yard TD in the second.
The advanced-stat folks have a convoluted but useful statistic, expected points added (EPA), which crunches a bunch of factors down into a single number that reflects the value of any given play. (i.e., how many points is each play “worth,” based on the circumstances.) By that measure, Duggan turned in a negative EPA as a passer against the Wolverines, accounting for -0.21 EPA per play with a success rate — that is, the share of plays that generate positive EPA — of 33 percent. If you’re a scout who had him sized up as a Day 3 draft pick before kickoff, your opinion probably did not change. And if you’re Georgia, you’re not nearly as anxious about the prospect of Duggan letting it rip from a clean pocket as you were with Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.
On the other hand, the idea that the Heisman runner-up was doomed to turn into a pumpkin against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses didn’t bear out, either. Duggan’s mobility and all-purpose grit-itude carried over from the regular season in full. As a runner, he accounted for 63 yards, 2 touchdowns, 7 first downs and a 79% success rate, nearly offsetting his negative EPA through the air; add to that a 68-yard run by RB Emari Demercado via zone read, which was largely the result of Duggan freezing Michigan’s edge defender for the split-second necessary to create a sliver of daylight for Demercado to pop through. Meanwhile, although neither of Duggan’s touchdown passes traveled far in terms of “air yards,” both qualified as clutch throws with an essentially unblocked rusher in his face. Both of his interceptions came off deflections, one of them a flat-out drop by WR Derius Davis on an accurate throw over the middle. And his best throw, a 46-yard dime to Johnston in the third quarter, was the kind that will make scouts and opposing coaches sit up straight.
— ?????? @???????? (@FTBeard7) December 31, 2022
It was no coincidence that Duggan’s lone successful deep shot came via play-action, on 1st-and-10, on an afternoon when TCU’s ground game commanded the lion’s share of the Wolverines’ attention. Between Demercado, Duggan and Kendre Miller, the Frogs ran for more yards (263) on more yards per carry (6.4) against Michigan’s defense than any opposing offense over the past 2 seasons, eclipsing their own season averages in the process. It was also par for the course for Duggan, who has benefited enormously from a play-action-friendly scheme overseen by first-year offensive coordinator Garrett Riley:
TCU isn’t a dominant rushing team, by any means, but at a shade over 200 yards per game it makes a perfectly decent living. The Frogs have been productive enough, consistently enough to remain viable on the ground every time out, and to keep Duggan out of desperate passing situations as a result. The more the playbook remains open, the more aggressive the offense can afford to be as the night wears on. Pulling off that dynamic against Michigan was a major achievement, especially after the resident workhorse, Miller, left the game with a knee injury in the first half. (Miller is questionable to play on Monday night, per his head coach — a potentially huge absence that seems only slightly less huge after Demercado went off for 150 yards on 8.8 per carry off the bench.) Sustaining it against Georgia, owner of the nation’s No. 1 run defense and No. 1 individual run stopper, herculean DT Jalen Carter, will be a final-boss-level test.
Georgia’s priority: Keeping the lid on
As we’ve seen already, “explosive” doesn’t quite do the Frogs justice. At their best, they’re borderline nuclear. No other FBS offense generated more plays of 50+ yards this season, or did it in as many different ways: Johnston (6), Miller (4), Derius Davis (3), slot receiver Taye Barber (3) and Demercado (2) all accounted for multiple 50-yard gains, managing at least 1 in 10 of the last 12 games after Duggan reclaimed the QB job from Week 1 starter Chandler Morris. (If you’re feeling generous, you can add Johnston’s leaping, 48-yard gain in traffic against Oklahoma State to make it 11 out of the past 12.) Between Johnston on the outside and Davis and Barber in the slot, there’s enough pure speed on the field at any given time to stress any defense past its breaking point.
#CFB's Top 5 Fastest Ball Carriers from Week 12
— Reel Analytics (@RAanalytics) November 25, 2022
#CFB's Top 5 Fastest Ball Carriers from Week 8
— Reel Analytics (@RAanalytics) October 24, 2022
— Reel Analytics (@RAanalytics) January 1, 2023
Georgia, of course, is not just any defense. At their best, the Dawgs are still capable of locking down even the most high-octane attacks in the college game, as Tennessee learned the hard way back in early November. (See also: Oregon in the season-opener.) But the Dawgs are not immune to the occasional lapse, and in their past 2 games there have been a lot more of them than a Kirby Smart defense is accustomed to, especially through the air.
It was easy enough to gloss over LSU’s 549-yard, 30-point performance in the SEC Championship Game, which scanned at the time as just another standard-issue UGA blowout. Georgia allowed an alarming 9.7 yards per attempt against the Tigers — including touchdowns covering 53, 34 and 33 yards, respectively — but also recorded 2 interceptions and 4 sacks in a game that was all but in the books in the second quarter. So LSU fell hopelessly behind and spent the rest of the afternoon letting its backup quarterback air it out. So what? Well, next up is Ohio freakin’ State, is what. The issues on the back end in the Peach Bowl were undeniable. Stroud, coming off a demystifying turn against Michigan to end the regular season, was on point in Atlanta, connecting on 6-on-7 attempts of 20+ yards with 3 TDs. His top targets, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka, treated the Bulldogs like a random Big Ten secondary in mid-October, averaging 16.8 yards on a combined 13 receptions. Four of OSU’s 5 touchdown drives came off in 6 plays or less. If not for Harrison’s exit late in the third quarter, sidelining him for the entirety of Georgia’s comeback effort in the fourth, there’s a good chance it would have been the Buckeyes advancing to this stage instead.
The silver lining for the Dawgs was that, as scorched as they were at the end of the night, they didn’t give away anything for free: Ohio State never managed to get over the top of the coverage or slip a tackle en route to a breakaway gain in the open field. The Buckeyes’ longest play, a 37-yard touchdown strike from Stroud to reserve WR Xavier Johnson, exploited a mismatch in coverage (Johnson was matched against a linebacker, Jamon Dumas-Johnson, with predictable results) but still required a next-level throw from Stroud.
As a team, they averaged just 4.3 yards after catch, their lowest YAC effort of the season outside of a windy, waterlogged win at Northwestern. TCU, as you might have guessed, thrives on YAC: Davis (9.4), Johnston (8.9) and Barber (7.7) all rank in the top 15 nationally in average yards after catch among Power 5 wideouts with at least 40 targets, per PFF. Give them a step and a sliver of daylight, and they might be gone.
Georgia can’t eliminate those windows of opportunity entirely, but it can make them tighter than any opposing defense the Frogs have faced to date, and slam them shut ASAP with sound open-field tackling. (And, ideally, by not asking an inside linebacker to run vertically with a slot receiver.) If putting points on the board comes down to Duggan’s ability to string together sustained scoring drives, that’s a bet the Bulldogs can live with.
The wild card: Georgia’s pass rush
The Bulldogs are not a blitz-heavy outfit, in general, often because it isn’t necessary. But they are willing to get creative when the situation arises, and the Peach Bowl was clearly one of those situations: Georgia felt enough urgency to turn up the heat on Stroud that they sent an extra rusher on exactly half of his 44 drop-backs, per PFF, most of them coming later in the game after he’d spent the first three quarters carving them up from clean pockets. Three of their 4 sacks and a dozen QB pressures against OSU were credited to inside linebackers and defensive backs.
Is that sustainable against TCU? Leaving DBs isolated against the Frogs’ speed is a dicey proposition. Before they start digging too deeply into the blitz bag, Smart and DC Will Muschamp need to know what kind of push they can expect from their front four, which at the point in the season means Jalen Carter and true freshman DE Mykel Williams, specifically.
Carter needs no introduction: Since returning from a nagging knee injury at midseason, he has lived up to his reputation as the most unstoppable interior pass rusher in the country, generating as many viral highlights featuring his sheer physical dominance as actual sacks; PFF has him down for 23 pressures over the past 7 games, including 5 against Ohio State and 6 against LSU. Williams, the highest-rated member of Georgia’s 2022 recruiting class, is not nearly as far along the hype curve — technically, he’s not even a starter — but is well on his way with a team-high 31 pressures in his first year on campus. He opened plenty of eyes in the Peach Bowl when he scored a sack at the expense of the Buckeyes’ All-American left tackle, Paris Johnson, a projected first-round pick next spring.
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) January 1, 2023
Michigan’s blitz-heavy game plan in the Fiesta Bowl only yielded one sack, but managed some level of pressure on 14 of Duggan’s 32 drop-backs; he was just 3-for-12 passing on pressured attempts. Still, considering 2 of those 3 completions went for touchdowns, every additional body the Dawgs devote to raising the temperature on the quarterback poses a significant risk on the back end.
Key matchup: TCU WR Quentin Johnston vs. Georgia CB Kelee Ringo
Johnston was already widely considered the top wideout in the 2023 draft class, and his monster afternoon against Michigan only put more distance between him and the other names on the list. At 6-4, 215, he’s the complete package: Big, fast and productive, with an enormous catch radius, open-field juice, and ball skills to spare. It’s impossible to imagine the Frogs winning without another headline performance from their most NFL-ready talent.
Ringo is a first-round specimen in his own right, but his stock has taken a hit down the stretch as opposing QBs continue to send a high volume of targets in his direction: He’s faced 50 in the past 6 games, per PFF, allowing 27 receptions on 12.4 yards per catch. (He’s also been flagged 6 times in that span for pass interference.)
His highly-anticipated showdown against Marvin Harrison Jr. in the Peach Bowl was a mixed bag — although Harrison had just 1 catch at Ringo’s expense on 6 targets, the one catch was a touchdown, and 2 of the incompletions were drops. Athletically, there may not be an active college corner better suited to manning up against the likes of Harrison and Johnston. Consistency is another question, one the Frogs will likely force him to answer early and often.
When Georgia has the ball
Best players on the field
1. Georgia TE/WR Brock Bowers (84.8 PFF grade | 884 yards + 9 TDs | Mackey Award winner)
2. TCU CB Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson (78.1 PFF | 14 PBUs + 3 INTs | Thorpe Award)
3. Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV (86.5 PFF | 86.3 QBR | 4th in Heisman vote)
4. Georgia RB Kenny McIntosh (84.7 PFF | 1,285 scrimmage yards + 12 TDs)
5. Georgia TE Darnell Washington* (86.4 PFF | 426 yards + 2 TDs | 2nd-team All-SEC)
6. Georgia OT Broderick Jones (78.1 PFF | 0 sacks allowed | projected 1st-rounder)
7. TCU CB Josh Newton (82.1 PFF | 12 PBUs + 3 INTs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
8. TCU DE Dylan Horton (76.3 PFF | 47 tackles + 14 TFLs)
9. TCU LB Dee Winters (54.4 PFF | 72 tackles + 15 TFLs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
10. Georgia C Sedrick Van Pran (70.7 PFF | 0 sacks allowed | 2nd-team All-SEC)
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*questionable due to injury
Georgia’s priority: Keeping everyone involved
The hallmark of Georgia’s offense under coordinator Todd Monken is an everything-by-committee approach that exploits the Bulldogs’ depth at the skill positions at the expense of individual star power. In 3 seasons on Monken’s watch, UGA has yet to produce a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver, even while finishing in the top 10 nationally in total and scoring offense in each of the past 2. That’s certainly not for a lack of viable candidates. It’s one thing to have the luxury of spreading the wealth; pulling it off with that kind of consistency requires real commitment.
The numbers don’t leap off the page from one week to the next, but they add up. The primary backs, Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton, each logged a single 100-yard rushing game en route to a combined 2,077 yards and 24 TDs for the season. In the passing game, Georgia got more mileage out of its backs and tight ends than any offense in the country: McIntosh, Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington collectively averaged 13.8 yards on 125 catches, each of them posing a unique matchup problem due to their complementary roles in the run game. Among the actual wideouts, 7 receivers went over 100 receiving yards for the year, despite the fact that only 2 of them, Ladd McConkey and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, touched the ball in every game.
The upshot for opposing defenses is that there is no focal point and no sound strategy to account for the multitude of options Monken throws at them. How do you defend a scheme that can shift seamlessly from grinding between the tackles to running the Air Raid with the same core personnel? If there’s an answer other than “have better players,” no one has found it against this lineup yet. The Bulldogs have averaged north of 6.0 yards per play in every game this season except their 16-6 slugfest at Kentucky in which they came in at a mere 5.6 ypp while attempting a season-low 19 passes.
Kentucky dared the Dawgs to pound out a living on the ground and they did, rushing for 247 yards in a game whose outcome was never in doubt. Ohio State took the opposite approach, holding Georgia to a pedestrian 147 rushing yards (excluding sacks) on a season-low 24 carries, and finally succeeded in the process in putting the outcome of a high-scoring game on the much-doubted right arm of Stetson Bennett IV; Bennett responded with one of the crowning nights of his career, bombing the Buckeyes for 398 yards and 3 touchdowns passing on 11.7 per attempt.
*Last 2 drives including the 2pt conversion: 7/7, 146yds passing, 2tds
*May not have been his best overall game, but was certainly his best 4th Q performance. Balled when it mattered most
— QB Spotlight (@QBspotlight) January 1, 2023
Altogether, 9 different UGA players accounted for at least 1 play of 15+ yards, including a couple of names Georgia fans have been waiting all year to hear: Adonai Mitchell and Arian Smith. Mitchell, one of the heroes of last year’s CFP Championship win over Alabama as a true freshman, was due for a breakthrough sophomore campaign in ’22; instead, a lingering ankle injury cost him essentially the entire regular season. The Peach Bowl marked his first game back in the regular rotation at wide receiver, capped by the go-ahead touchdown with 54 seconds to play — his first TD since the season-opener against Oregon.
Smith, who was also relegated to the back burner by a preseason ankle injury, equaled his season total with 3 catches against OSU, highlighted by a wide-open, 76-yard TD that breathed life into the Bulldogs’ comeback effort midway through the fourth quarter.
With that, 7 of Smith’s 11 career receptions have gained at least 30 yards … and still he remains something like 10th in line for meaningful touches. Every skill player the Dawgs put on the field is capable of making an impact in one way or another, and if the semifinal is any indication at some point almost all of them will.
TCU’s priority: Offsetting the damage
There’s no point pretending TCU’s defense is some kind of sleeping giant. They entered the Fiesta Bowl with a reputation as a squarely middle-of-the-pack unit, and in most respects they played like one, allowing 45 points and 528 yards on 7.0 per play. Michigan produced a 100-yard rusher, 2 100-yard receivers and 4 touchdowns on drives of 3 plays or less. Wolverines QB JJ McCarthy, not exactly known as a prolific downfield passer, was 12-for-17 on attempts 10+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Still, it’s impossible to take stock of the Frogs’ upset without also acknowledging all the ways the defense offset Michigan’s output with game-changing plays of their own. In fact, based on EPA the Frogs made 3 distinct plays in the first three quarters that were each worth the equivalent of a touchdown or more apiece. Two of them actually were touchdowns: Pick-6 INTs by DB Bud Clark in the first quarter and LB Dee Winters in the third, respectively. The other, a fumble recovery that defused a golden Michigan scoring opportunity at the 1-yard line, was flukier (and more controversial, considering Michigan had plainly scored on the previous play, only to have the apparent TD wiped out by replay) but every bit as crucial on the scoreboard. Those 3 plays alone amounted to a combined 23.3 EPA in a game ultimately decided by 6 points.
Despite a massive size advantage up front, TCU also gave as good as it got at the line of scrimmage, racking up a season-high 13 tackles for loss while managing just enough pressure to keep McCarthy from settling into his comfort zone.
Negative plays don’t create wild momentum swings, but they can grind a successful drive to a halt in a hurry. The pass rush came primarily from senior DE Dylan Horton, an unheralded transfer from New Mexico who recorded a career-high 4 sacks. In the running game, the Wolverines were frequently disoriented by coordinator Joe Gillespie’s 3-3-5 scheme, which kept delivering defenders into the backfield from angles Michigan’’ decorated OL seemed to have never considered. Usually, that was Winters, who (in addition to the pick-6) chalked up 7 solo tackles and 3 TFLs in a breakout performance.
Dee Winters big TFL pic.twitter.com/UlTbMBpZb5
— Alex ? (@Dubs408) December 31, 2022
Dee Winters is going off pic.twitter.com/hd8TeFDy8u
— Alex ? (@Dubs408) December 31, 2022
On paper, let’s face it: The Frogs are overmatched. Georgia, like Michigan, is going to make its fair share of plays and generate its fair share of opportunities in the red zone. But just because it’s not in the same weight class as the Bulldogs’ versatile, blue-chip offense doesn’t mean Gillespie’s D doesn’t have a puncher’s chance. If it short-circuits just a couple of those opportunities and manages again to create a couple of its own, we might have ourselves a ball game.
The wild card: Darnell Washington’s ankle
Washington logged just a dozen snaps in the Peach Bowl before exiting in the second quarter, at which point UGA’s ground game departed with him: The Dawgs managed a grand total of 20 yards rushing after halftime. He may not be singlehandedly responsible for that number, but his value as a blocker is hard to overstate. While Georgia doesn’t really have a “base” offense, for most of the season 2-tight-end sets featuring Washington and Brock Bowers’ complementary skill sets served as the default setting. And while Bowers starred as the team’s leading receiver, the 6-7, 270-pound Washington functioned almost as a 6th o-lineman, routinely paving the way as a lead blocker from his H-back role and posting a team-best 81.4 run-blocking grade per PFF. While also, yes, by the way, averaging 15.8 yards on 27 catches himself.
Washington is in the “questionable” column for Monday night, according to Kirby Smart, whose commitment to remaining as deliberately vague as possible re: injuries is noted. Obviously, Georgia is deep enough to absorb the loss of any given cog in the machine. Other than Bennett, though, Washington may be the one piece who is too unique to simply plug in the next man up and expect him to do the same things. His understudy is true freshman Oscar Delp, who at 6-5/225 is more of a receiver at this early stage of his career than a blocker. If the big man can’t go, it’s just as likely the response will be to lean more heavily on 3- and 4-wide sets that he’s rarely involved in, anyway.
Key matchup: Georgia OT Amarius Mims vs. TCU DE Dylan Horton
The other question mark in UGA’s starting lineup is at right tackle, where senior Warren McClendon’s streak of 37 consecutive starts was snapped in the Peach Bowl due to a knee injury he suffered against LSU. His absence opened the door for Mims, who is likely at the beginning of a long tenure of his own. At 6-7/330, Mims is a next-level specimen in his second year in the program who would have been a Day 1 starter this season on almost any other college o-line; instead, he settled for a rotational role at RT before finally clocking his first career start against the Buckeyes. Whether McClendon is available or not, the kid is not going anywhere anytime soon after posting the top PFF grade of any Georgia lineman in the biggest game of the season.
For a guy who has played a lot of football, Horton is also just beginning to come into his own. He made a big impression in the win over Michigan, both for his stat line and his range: In a crucial early sequence, he hustled from the opposite side of the field to deny McCarthy at the goal line, and was subsequently credited with the sack on the Wolverines’ ill-fated 4th-down attempt on the next play. A late bloomer, he may not measure up favorably against Mims in terms of pro potential. But Horton does represent TCU’s only plausible chance to generate front-line pressure on Bennett without resorting to heavy blitzing. Just how plausible shouldn’t take long to sort out.
Special Teams, injuries and other vagaries
How concerned should Georgia be about kicker Jack Podlesny? From inside of 40 yards, he’s as reliable as they come, connecting on 21-of-21 attempts on the season. From longer range, though, it gets dicier: Podlesny has missed 4 of his past 5 from 40+ yards, including a couple of misses against Ohio State from 47 and 52, respectively. If the Dawgs really need one from distance, the jury is out.
His counterpart, TCU’s Griffin Kell, isn’t a long-range bomber, either, with just 2 attempts from 50+ all year (1-for-2). He’s been reliable on everything else, though, hitting 16-of-17 attempts inside of 50 yards, and buried possibly the most clutch kick in TCU history as time expired in a late-season thriller at Baylor:
— Chet Ubetcha (@chetUbetcha__) November 19, 2022
UGA punter Brett Thorson may not be called upon often in this game, but when he is his mission should be to avoid giving Derius Davis a chance at a clean return at all costs. Davis is one of the nation’s most dangerous return men, with 5 career touchdowns on punt returns (2 of them coming this season, against Colorado and Texas Tech) as well as a kickoff return TD in 2021. He stung Michigan for 31 yards on his only return in the Fiesta Bowl, setting up a short field for TCU’s final points of the game via field goal. And although opponents have only managed a return on 6 of Thorson’s 35 punts this season, one of those was a 63-yard touchdown by Mississippi State’s Zavion Thomas. The flip side of Davis’ explosiveness in the return game is his marginal ball security: PFF has him down for 5 career muffs.
We’ve covered the relevant injuries on both sides, the most critical of which involves Kendre Miller’s knee. Sonny Dykes told reporters earlier this week that he was “hopeful” his star running back would be available, and that a determination would be made as the week went on; that’s shaping up as a game-time decision, never a good omen for a position that depends on abrupt, load-bearing cuts.
As productive as Miller has been all season, Emari Demercado’s 150-yard performance off the bench against Michigan made a compelling case that the drop-off from RB1 to RB2 will be minimal, if there is any drop-off at all. Whether that actually adds up to meaningful production against Georgia’s front seven remains to be seen.
The bottom line …
I discussed the implications of a TCU upset up top. Now, time for the reality check: Georgia is deeper, more talented, more complete, more consistent and more experienced in a championship setting — more of everything that carries teams not just to this point, but all the way across the finish line.
Even in terms of resiliency, which is TCU’s whole thing, the Dawgs have proven their mettle in come-from-behind wins over Missouri and Ohio State, both games they trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter. They’ve dominated, they’ve narrowly escaped, they’ve muddled through. At no point has there been any real doubt that they possess all the ingredients of a championship team.
TCU’s glimmer of hope lies in its speedy wide receivers against a suddenly beleaguered UGA secondary. There are some legitimate concerns on the back end based on the past 2 games. In every other respect, though, Georgia’s advantage is clear and present, most obviously along both lines of scrimmage. Blue-chip SEC teams have been consistently out-athleting the rest of the country in the trenches on big stages for the better part of two decades, and the matchup has rarely looked as lopsided on the front end as it does in L.A.
The Frogs are a great story and a feisty bunch who have earned their place in this game.
The Bulldogs are actually built to win it.
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Prediction: Georgia 41 | TCU 26