I promise to keep the intro short and sweet. After all, we have a national championship to discuss. But as we say farewell to another football season, one ripe with upsets, bad beats, a legendary national championship run and a pair of superb (finally) playoff games, one point stands above all.
No matter how much college football changes, it will still remain the purest, weirdest and most exciting sport on the planet. Oh, it’s getting confusing. The transfer portal, expansion and the NIL are slowly morphing CFB into the NFL. At least in some ways.
Saturdays, however, are still sacred. And the energy and excellence that we were gifted this year, despite the sport’s dramatic evolution, was as good as it has ever been.
Thank goodness for that. I can tolerate everything else. I can study rosters a little harder if it means that the games themselves will stay immaculate. And as we enter a national championship that feels somewhat lopsided in nature, I am reminded just how much beautiful chaos needed to take place for this matchup to happen.
Cheers to college football. Cheers to this year. Cheers to the national championship.
The Appetizer: College Football Playoff Tidbits and Observations
Before we get to the title game, let’s reassess some of the major movements around the sport.
1. It certainly feels like Jim Harbaugh is seriously considering a return to the NFL. Whether it’s the Panthers or the Broncos or another team, Harbaugh’s flirtation with the league is very real. And if it isn’t this year, just like it wasn’t last year, it feels like a matter of time. On the CFB front, Michigan would be a fascinating opening. It's a superb job with a deep, talented roster. Although the timing of the opening isn’t ideal, Michigan could swing for the fences when trying to find a replacement.
2. USC’s defense is going to prevent it from winning big until further notice. That says it all, really. The Trojans allowed Tulane to score 16 points in the final four minutes of the Cotton Bowl, and the Green Wave ultimately won 46-45. (They also, clearly, covered the two-point spread.) In the final two games of the season, the Trojans’ defense allowed 1,072 combined yards against Tulane and Utah. Now, the future of DC Alex Grinch, who followed Riley from Oklahoma, is in doubt. As it should be. USC has one season left with Caleb Williams. It must do everything it can to maximize his time before he heads to the NFL, likely as the No. 1 overall pick in 2024.
3. Penn State is likely to become a buzz-heavy team this offseason. The Nittany Lions gained some betting steam before kickoff, and they closed as a 1.5-point favorite over Utah. They proceeded to clobber the Utes, although an injury to Utah QB Cam Rising seriously impacted this game. Regardless, James Franklin’s roster is young, talented and potentially emerging. Prepare for eight months of hype, which might be legitimate, heading into next year.
4. If you bet Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl, I want to give you a hug. Seriously, get in here. The Illini lost 19-10 to Mississippi State after leading 10-3 entering the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs proceeded to score 16 points, headlined by a freakish fumble return with no time left to push the score from 13-10 to 19-10. Illinois closed as a four-point underdog and failed to cover as a result. There are bad beats, and then there is whatever the hell this was. Yuck.
5. I will be attending the national championship, and I am very excited to visit SoFi Stadium for the first time. At the moment, I would say that Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta is the best facility I’ve watched a football game in. But people who travel far more than I have raved about SoFi, minus the fact that a hot dog costs roughly $700. Regardless, a full review is coming next week.
Where will the number land? We shall see as money comes in.
The early part of the week saw Georgia steady as a 13-point favorite over TCU. The number dipped to 13 and then 12.5 as of Wednesday night. There are also a few 12s out there. The total has climbed slightly to 63.
Both teams have been excellent against the spread all season. Georgia is 10-4 ATS, while TCU is 10-3-1 ATS. (Depending on what your number was in the TCU-Kansas game, that push could have gone either way.)
In terms of totals, it’s been a wild ride. The Horned Frogs have gone over in six of their first eight games. More recently, the under has hit in four of the past six TCU matchups. Georgia started the year off with five unders in the first six games. The Bulldogs closed with four overs in the final five games.
A Quick Word About Recruiting: Georgia vs. TCU
I won’t bore you with how both teams are doing on the recruiting trail now. It will do you know good here. But to understand just how different these teams are, you must look at just what the last five years have looked like.
Using the 247Sports database, between 2022 and 2021, Georgia had the No. 3, No. 4, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 1 recruiting classes in the country. In that time, they landed 25 five-star prospects.
TCU, in the same period, landed the No. 45, No. 54, No. 23, No. 32, and No. 25 classes. They landed one five-star prospect in that time.
The difference between these two programs is seismic. The Georgia roster is dramatically different from top to bottom. That can be said about Georgia and essentially every team not named Alabama, Ohio State and maybe a few others.
Recruiting does win championships. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. That doesn't mean TCU can’t win this game. But it does show you what they’re up against and how historic this run truly is.
How TCU Can Win the National Championship
It starts with the quarterback, obviously, because if Max Duggan plays well, TCU has a shot.
For the Horned Frogs to win this game, Duggan must be his normal dynamic self. (Only unlike the semifinal round, he cannot turn the ball over this time around.)
For Duggan to play his game, however, the offensive line must hold up. It might be the most important matchup in this title game. Given the fact that Georgia has allowed 850 yards passing in the last two games, it must start here.
That is not a typo; the Bulldogs’ secondary has been exposed in recent weeks, and TCU is in a position to take full advantage.
(Well, if they can protect the QB.)
Running the ball will also help, although this aspect of TCU’s gameplan is still TBD. Star running back Kendre Miller is officially questionable to play in this game after hurting his knee in the Fiesta Bowl. Whether he plays or not, it’s fair to assume he likely won’t be 100 percent. That’s significant.
Emari Demercado filled in for Miller once he went down. Demercado delivered a slew of explosive plays, although pass protection was a concern. Against a team like Georgia, well, the pass protection must be sound.
Defensively, the Horned Frogs must find a way to disrupt Georgia the way it disrupted Michigan. Linebacker Dee Winters was a wrecking ball against the Wolverines, and he could do the same here. The negative plays were enormous, especially early on.
On top of disrupting, however, Sonny Dykes’ team must find a way to eliminate big plays that plagued this team the last time out.
And yes, TCU needs some breaks. That is not meant as a slight to the Horned Frogs. It’s a reality of their situation given the difference in talent. They can create these breaks, and they did a superb job of doing so against Michigan.
One last piece: TCU cannot fall behind. The regular season formula, which was extremely successful, will do no help here. A fast start like the one they experienced in the semis is a must.
Get Georgia out of sync, keep scoring and it might just be enough.
How Georgia Can Win (and Cover) the National Championship
Like TCU, it starts with the quarterback. Stetson Bennett fell completely out of rhythm against Ohio State during the middle portion of their game. He eventually regained that rhythm and threw for 398 yards along the way. He also scored four touchdowns.
The return of Adonai Mitchell was a boost to a receiving group loaded with weapons. For Georgia, however, the game plan should be simple: give the ball to tight end Brock Bowers as often as possible, as a wideout and a runner. It should come as no surprise that the Bulldogs’ offense opened up the moment Bowers got involved. It cannot be overstated just how important to this team (and this game) he is.
The other element I expect Georgia to build upon is the running game. Kirby Smart’s team averaged more than five yards per carry against Ohio State, and I expect we’ll see RB Kenny McIntosh log much more than five carries.
This should be the overall strategy: wear down TCU. Lean on them for as long as you can. Big plays are wonderful, although Georgia would rather play a more boa constrictor type of game. Keeping the ball away from the TCU offense is indeed a wonderful idea.
On defense, it’s all about the pass rush. At this point, I don’t expect the secondary to be repaired. Generating pressure up front without blitzing is the best option. Trying to blitz, which Michigan did, comes with a great deal of risk.
Still, Georgia might not have a choice if it can’t move Duggan. And if he does take off, they can’t let him pick up chunks of yards. It killed Michigan in big moments, and it killed other teams along the way. Containing Duggan will be essential. Few, thus far, have been able to pull it off.
At almost every position, Georgia will have a physical edge. It needs to treat this game as such. Smart, who comes from the Nick Saban coaching tree, doesn’t need to look long for inspiration.
Before Lane Kiffin changed the offense at Alabama, Smart was a fixture of many meat-grinder football games. This won’t be that type of game. There will be points. But Georgia should attempt to do what Michigan couldn’t: utilize years of dominant recruiting and overwhelm the opposition.