The Georgia Bulldogs can handle pressure, because you don’t go 32-1 over your previous 33 games without remaining mentally locked in when challenged by opponents – powerhouses or underdogs – that come after you with everything they’ve got.
In Monday night’s national college football championship, Georgia can’t afford to take TCU lightly. I don’t think that will happen, because coach Kirby Smart and his players have come too far to let down and bring complacency into a competition against a talented underdog challenger that has one of the best big-play offenses in the nation.
As of Monday afternoon Georgia was a 14-point favorite, and we can understand why.
The Dawgs are the defending national champs and have lost one game since Nov. 21, 2020. Seeing that this is now 2023, that’s ridiculously impressive.
Georgia doesn’t run low on talent. As Saturday Down South noted, Georgia had 15 players selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, including five in the first round. The 15 picks were the most chosen from a single college-football team since the NFL went to a seven-round draft format in 1994. Not only that, but Georgia also lost 14 players to the transfer portal after the 2021 season. That’s 29 players from the 2021 championship squad – or 34 percent of the 85 scholarship players — who weren’t still around when the Dawgs went hunting for a second consecutive championship. And here they are, restocked and ready to win another natty.
Georgia, which resides in the toughest and most talented conference in college football – is used to going against elite competition. Since Smart’s second season at UGA, his teams are 47-9 in regular-season SEC games. Goodness.
Georgia has an experienced quarterback, Stetson Bennett, who doesn’t flinch with important games on the line. In each of his last two college playoff games – wins over Alabama and Ohio State – Stetson faced fourth-quarter deficits that had Georgia in serious trouble. They trailed Alabama 18-13 with 10 minutes left in last year’s title game but came to win 33-18. And with Georgia down 14 points to Ohio State in a semifinal game this past Dec. 31, Bennett came through again, delivering a 42-41 victory over the Buckeyes. In the combined fourth quarters of both games, Georgia outscored ‘Bama and Ohio State 38-12 … and Bennett completed 88 percent of his passes for 273 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
It’s difficult for Georgia to overlook an underdog opponent when the Dawgs start a former walk-on at quarterback who is one of the great underdogs of his time. In the past four seasons, five-star quarterback recruits lost seven of 10 playoff games. If the Bulldogs triumph over TCU, Bennett will finish his career with a perfect 4-0 record in playoff games.
This note from Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports: Georgia has won 14 straight games over Power Five schools, including every program that has won a national championship since 2006 and others who have played in title games and playoffs. Georgia is 44-5 in regular-season SEC games and 33-2 against SEC East opponents since 2017.
OK, I’ll stop now.
We know that Georgia has taken Alabama as the No. 1 program in the nation and there’s nothing fluky or temporary about it. Alabama certainly is capable of reclaiming that unofficial designation, but Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban has some catching up to do. Smart, the prodigy, has maximized everything that Saban taught him.
So where does that leave TCU? Easy answer: with a chance to pull off a stunner. There are no guarantees, but everything points to this being a tight game.
The Horned Frogs haven’t trailed all season during the first four quarters of a game. (In the Big 12 championship, they lost to Kansas State in overtime.) The nobody-respects-us card has been overplayed by TCU, but it works for them.
TCU has an advantage from a wagering standpoint, going 10-3-1 against the spread this season compared to Georgia’s 7-7 mark ATS.
TCU quarterback Max Duggan finished second in this season’s Heisman Trophy voting, two spots ahead of Stetson Bennett. Duggan isn’t the most accurate passer, but he frequently burns secondaries with 20-yards-plus throws, ranking fourth in the nation with 36 deep-ball completions, 14 of which went for touchdoend. And wide receiver Quentin Johnston, who averages 17.1 yards per completion, could be the best target in college football. Duggan is excellent at escaping the pass rush, and he does a good job of taking off on longer runs. e’s also rushed for 461 yards and eight TDs. He’s a threat to put up 250+ passing yards and 100+ rushing yards, but his scrambles may be more difficult to pull off against Georgia.
And let’s not forget that TCU bullied Michigan for 200+ rushing yards but Georgia should hold up better than Michigan did in that one. But what about the passing game? For all of Georgia’s talent and nasty reputation on defense, the Dogs were zinged for an average of 425 yards passing, and gave up 508 total yards per game, in their last two adventures (against LSU and Ohio State.) Is the Georgia defense vulnerable? Could be. If so, Duggan and the Horned Frogs can exploit that.
TCU head coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Garret Riley have creative minds. LSU had success with an up-tempo offense that caused problems. Ohio State took notes and went with the same strategy, amassing 504 yards and 41 points. TCU will likely go with the same approach against the Dawgs, hoping to wear UGA down.
All of that said, TCU needed the assistance of many screw-ups provided by overrated Michigan in the semifinal matchup on Dec. 31. The Wolverines donated two pick-six interceptions, a foolish and botched “Philly Special” fourth-down failure near the goal line, and a lost fumble in another series that took Michigan to TCU’s one-yard line before imploding. And those are just the most notable lowlights.
I also believe Georgia will do well against TCU’s 3-3-5 “stack” defensive alignment, which can be disassembled by strong play from the tight ends.
From a personnel-talent viewpoint, Tennessee is the SEC team that most resembles TCU in its offensive approach. And during the regular season, in a matchup between No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Tennessee, the Dawgs were relentless in their pass rush of the outstanding quarterback Hendon Hooker and held the Volunteers to 13 points in a two-touchdown victory.
I respect the hell out of TCU and believe there’s a lot more to them than a cute-story narrative that’s been attached to this game.
But I’m thinking there is a much greater chance of Georgia playing its best game than Georgia playing a sloppy, inept game. And I’m assuming that Smart and staff have been working on tightening the team’s leaky pass defense.
Unlike Michigan, I don’t see Georgia choking on opportunities by repeatedly giving the ball away, which is the No. 1 reason why the Wolverines fell to TCU. And while an obviously distracted Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t have his team ready to play, that won’t happen with Kirby Smart.
I wouldn’t be surprised (at all) to see TCU cover the spread, but there are many reasons why Georgia is 32-1 in its last 33 games – which also makes the Dawgs the superior program and team.
Prediction: In a late pull-away, Georgia wins it 38-27. If that happens, it will be the 13th national championship in the last 17 seasons by an SEC team. And a Georgia triumph would give the SEC four consecutive national titles – and five of the last six.
Thanks for reading …
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.