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Georgia vs. TCU: College football national championship game preview

No. 1 Georgia (14-0) vs. No. 3 TCU (13-1)

Location: Los Angeles | When: Jan. 9 (8 p.m. ET) | TV: ESPN | Line: Georgia -12.5 | Total: 63.5

How these teams got here

Georgia: The Bulldogs are on the precipice of becoming the first team in College Football Playoff history to win back-to-back titles and join Alabama (2011 and 2012) as the only other back-to-back winner in the 2000s.

The Bulldogs lost a ton of defensive talent from that 2021 national title team and simply reloaded. Last year’s team allowed a staggering 10 points per game and had Travon Walker, Jordan Davis, Quay Walker, Devonte Wyatt and Lewis Cine all taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft.

In their absence in 2022, Smael Mondon Jr. became the team’s leading tackler. Malaki Starks emerged as a stellar defensive back and Jason Dumas-Johnson took a huge leap at linebacker. Oh, Georgia could also have the No. 1 pick of the 2023 NFL draft on its defensive line too. Interior lineman Jalen Carter has seven tackles for loss and three sacks in 12 games and can be college football’s most disruptive interior force.

The offense lost players like running backs Zamir White and James Cook and receivers Jermaine Burton and George Pickens. But the unit returned a lot of production and was immediately explosive in a 49-3 win over Oregon to start the season.

By now, you know how Stetson Bennett has gone from walk-on to Heisman finalist as he’s become one of the better quarterbacks in college football. The running game leans on do-it-all running back Kenny McIntosh (779 rushing yards, 506 receiving yards), the steadiness of Daijuan Edwards (5.5 yards per carry) and the explosiveness of Kendall Milton (7.3 yards a carry). And the receivers can pose mismatch problems all over the field with TEs Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington and WR Ladd McConkey.

Only Ohio State (7.2) averaged more yards per play than Georgia (7.1) as the Bulldogs scored nearly 40 points per game. The average margin of victory in Georgia's games has been nearly 24 points — and that’s after accounting for the team’s one-point escape against the Buckeyes in the Peach Bowl.

Can potential top-three pick Jalen Carter be a massive disruptor Monday night in the national championship against TCU? (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Can potential top-three pick Jalen Carter be a massive disruptor Monday night in the national championship against TCU? (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

TCU: The Horned Frogs are in the midst of one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. After going 5-7 in 2021 and being widely picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12, TCU has just one loss and is a win away from the school’s first national title since 1938.

It’s hard to overstate how sideways things went at TCU in 2021. The team was outscored by six points per game and parted ways with longtime coach Gary Patterson eight games into the season. TCU went 181-79 in Patterson’s 22 seasons at the school and won 10 or more games in half of those years.

The school hired SMU coach Sonny Dykes to replace Patterson and the improvement was immediate thanks to an offense that returned largely intact from 2021 and a defense bolstered by the transfer portal.

Like his fellow Heisman finalist Bennett, Max Duggan has his own unique journey to the top of college football. Duggan wasn’t even TCU’s starter at the beginning of the season. Chandler Morris started the first game against Colorado. But Duggan took over after Morris was injured and hasn’t looked back.

While Georgia can be defined by dominance and four and five-star recruits, the theme of TCU’s season is its persistence and an incredible ability to come back from double-digit deficits. The Horned Frogs found themselves losing to Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech during the middle of the season and won all of those contests. A last-second field goal was needed to beat a pesky Baylor team before TCU made it clear that it was heading to the playoff with a blowout of Iowa State.

Even the lone loss of the season included a comeback. Kansas State beat TCU 31-28 in overtime to win the conference title but the Horned Frogs forced the extra period thanks to 11 points in the final eight minutes of regulation.

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 31: Wide receiver Quentin Johnston #1 of the TCU Horned Frogs lines up against the Michigan Wolverines during the fourth quarter of the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. The Horned Frogs defeated the Wolverines 51-45.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Betting breakdown

TCU is favored by a significant majority of bettors and that favoritism is a reason why the line sits at 12.5 after opening at 13.5. The Horned Frogs are 10-3-1 against the spread this season while Georgia is 7-7. Bettors really like the over to hit too. The total opened at 61.5 and has moved up two points as over 80% of bets and cash at BetMGM are on the over.

Sonny Dykes can join exclusive club

If TCU wins on Monday, Dykes would be the fourth coach in college football history to win a national title in his first season at a school. Michigan’s Bennie Oosterbaan was in his first year with the Wolverines when they won the 1948 AP title and Dennis Erickson led Miami to the national title in 1989 in his first year since coming over from Washington State.

The most recent coach to win the national title in his first season was also a Miami coach. The Hurricanes won the 2001 BCS title in Larry Coker’s first year after Butch Davis left for the NFL.

“I think that if you had asked us before the season started, would we play for a national championship, most of us probably didn't think that we would,” Dykes said this week. “Thought that we were capable, certainly, but we just hadn't done it together.

“And there is a lot that goes into doing it together. You know you can. And you learn a lot of things as the journey goes along. So we've kind of had to build the plane while we're flying it in some ways this year. And I think that's just been something that our guys have done a fantastic job of adapting.”

In case you were wondering, TCU’s odds to win the national title before the season were 150-1.

TCU head coach Sonny Dykes holds the trophy after the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz. TCU defeated Michigan 51-45. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Sonny Dykes can be just the fourth coach to win a national title in his first season at a school. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Are the last two games a blip for the Georgia defense?

Georgia has given up fewer than 15 points per game in 2022 and 209 points over 14 games so far. But 71 of those points have come in the last two contests as LSU put up 30 in Georgia’s SEC title game win and then Ohio State scored 41 before missing a field goal in the final seconds of the Peach Bowl last week.

The Bulldogs hadn’t given up more than 22 points in a single game until the SEC title game and no team had broken 20 since Florida on Oct. 29. The lockdown Georgia defense has been far from it since the end of November. Is there a reason for concern?

If there’s something fundamentally wrong with Georgia’s defense at this point in the season, then the TCU offense will present an exceptional challenge. The Horned Frogs lead the country in plays of 50 yards or more and had two of them against Michigan.

"So I think that, again, Georgia is not accustomed to giving up that many points, but you got to see what Georgia is all about in the fourth quarter of that game,” Dykes said. “And you got to see what kind of team they have because they responded and did exactly what you would expect them to do, found a way to win … But I'm sure they're correcting some of those plays in the passing game.

“And those are the kind of plays that we're going to have to make. We'll have to make some 50/50 ball plays, and we'll have to have our best players step up and play big games, kind of like they did last week. And when you get to this point of the season on this kind of stage, those great players, they have to perform at a high level.”

Can TCU contain the Georgia run game?

While TCU’s two pick-sixes of Michigan QB J.J. McCarthy were a big reason why the Horned Frogs won the game, it’s impossible to ignore what TCU did against Michigan’s vaunted rushing attack as well.

The Horned Frogs gave up 186 yards on 40 carries, but many of those yards came on a few big plays. Donovan Edwards ripped off a 54-yard run on the first drive and McCarthy had a 21-yard TD run and a run of 39 yards. Outside of those plays, Michigan had 37 carries for 72 yards thanks to a TCU defense that made an incredible 12 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

Can the Horned Frogs get Georgia behind schedule like they did with Michigan? And if so, will it matter as much? Bennett is a better passer than McCarthy and Georgia has better receiving weapons.

Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh (6) runs to the end zone for a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh is a dual-threat running back. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

How healthy will Kendre Miller be?

The star TCU running back injured his right leg in the first half of the Fiesta Bowl and tried to play in the second half but was unable to go. He was replaced by Emari Demercado who made the most of his opportunity with a 69-yard run and 17 carries overall for 150 yards.

Miller had eight carries for 57 yards before he left and the injury meant the Fiesta Bowl was the first game all season he failed to score a rushing touchdown.

While Demercado showed against the Wolverines that he can be a No. 1 back in a pinch, the TCU offense is as good as it is because of Miller. The former two-star recruit averages over six yards a carry and has rushed for nearly 1,400 yards.

"We'll continue to try to see where he's at," Dykes said Saturday. "I think to me in the next 24 hours is when obviously we'll have to make a determination, have a pretty good idea on what he's going to be able to do going into the game Monday. We're still optimistic that he's going to be able to play. So we'll see how he feels [Saturday]."

If Miller is able to get 15 carries and be effective, TCU’s chances of pulling the upset are a lot better.

May the best Heisman finalist win?

Is it as simple as saying the national champion will be the team that gets the better performance from its Heisman finalist quarterback?

Both Bennett and Duggan shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the moment. After all, Bennett was in this same game a season ago. And Duggan has been the catalyst for many of TCU’s comebacks this season. A two-score Georgia lead in the second half isn’t going to be safe.

Bennett and the Georgia offense struggled in the third quarter against Ohio State before getting their act back together in the fourth quarter. He was phenomenal on the team’s final drive of the game and the 35-yard pass he threw over the middle to Kearis Jackson might have been one of the best throws of his career.

Duggan took over in the fourth quarter of the Big 12 title game and willed the contest to overtime with his running ability. That could present a unique test for the Georgia defense after the Bulldogs seemed a bit surprised by Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud’s running. Stroud didn’t run much during the season but got out of the pocket regularly in the Peach Bowl and made some great throws on the run.

Duggan is very good at doing that — but Georgia will be expecting it as well.

“He's got great players to do it with. He understands defenses. I think he's very smart. There's no defense he's going to see that he hasn't seen before,” Kirby Smart said. “You're not tricking an experienced quarterback, very similar with Stetson.

“You've got to do it better than they do it. You've got to out-executed them. There's no tricking them. And he does a tremendous job of that. They have a system to allow him to manage that and to get back to third downs where you've got a shot to convert them.”

Both Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (left) and TCU QB Max Duggan were Heisman finalists in December. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Both Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (left) and TCU QB Max Duggan were Heisman finalists in December. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) (Sarah Stier via Getty Images)

Best bets

Nick Bromberg: It’s hard not to fall for TCU after the way the 2022 season has gone for them. But it’s also hard to ignore the top-end talent up and down Georgia’s roster. National titles are won by the teams with the most talent, and that leads me to take Georgia on the moneyline. But I think there’s a good chance TCU can cover in this game. The Horned Frogs have shown multiple times during the season that they don’t quit. I’ll take Georgia to win and TCU to cover. And if you’re looking for a good prop bet, a Georgia win with both teams scoring 20 or more points is at -120 at BetMGM. Pick: TCU +12.5

Sam Cooper: I don't like this number at all. The public has been all over TCU plus the points and it just feels like the sharp bettors are waiting to pounce on Georgia if the spread gets down to a certain number. When I look at this matchup, I think Georgia will force Max Duggan to win this game as a passer. Duggan only hit one deep ball vs. Michigan and can struggle with some of the short and intermediate throws. UGA won't make the same catastrophic mistakes that Michigan did and I think Kirby Smart will try to get ahead early and sit on that lead in the second half. That makes me nervous about a backdoor cover, but I lean to Georgia and the under here. Pick: Georgia -12.5