It was about a week before Halloween of 1997. Kirby Smart couldn’t remember the details of what had happened a year earlier, only that he wanted to vomit.
Smart, then a fourth-year junior safety at Georgia amid a two-year run that saw him catch 11 interceptions, was preparing to face an upstart team from Kentucky – quarterbacked by a super-rookie named Tim Couch and coordinated by a hacker named Mike Leach – who committed an offense he had never seen before. There was a lot on his plate. But also more on his mind. He had been on the field a year prior when the Bulldogs were embarrassed at Lexington in stunning fashion. The loss, just Georgia’s fourth to Kentucky in a two-decade span, had actually happened after Kentucky administrators fired head coach Bill Curry midseason.
You can imagine how this result went in Athens.
“I don’t remember the details of that game,” Smart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “I just remember feeling really, really sick afterwards.”
Days later, Smart led the first SEC defense to contain the Leach-Hal Mumme airstrike by intercepting two passes in a 23-13 win at Georgia. Couch completed 41 of 55 attempts but only got one touchdown. Smart’s two interceptions came on Georgian territory, the second at the 3-yard line. After the game, Smart – already looking like the star football coach he was soon to become – told reporters how happy he was with his decision to step down from the kick-off and clearance coverage teams. to save his energy to defend himself.
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For Leach’s offensive staff, more professional success would be to come. Offensive line coach Guy Morriss would become Kentucky’s next head coach; Wide receivers coach Tony Franklin would be his offensive coordinator. And 28-year-old graduate assistant Sonny Dykes jumped straight into Leach’s Rolodex, then later became one of Leach’s first recruits at Texas Tech in 2000.
Sure, some things have happened in the meantime, but on Monday night in Los Angeles, two lifelong college footballers will battle it out for the sport’s biggest prize. Dykes and his TCU team arrived by upsetting Michigan’s physically impressive and rushing-based offense. Georgia, the smart and defending national champion, succeeded by surviving Ohio State’s absolute best shot while perhaps learning a few lessons about itself along the way.
It will be Georgia vs. TCU for the national title. Is that how someone wrote it earlier this year? No. America’s best-drilled teams go head-to-head on the biggest stage, though? Hard to argue with that.
We’ll take a look.
Before the TCU-Michigan game, the thing that interested me the most (but not that curious, as I’ve seen this movie before) was whether Jim Harbaugh would adjust to reality against the horned frog alley defenders before kickoff or if he would do the Jim Harbaugh thing and would challenge a team to show him how hard it is before making his changes.
To no one’s surprise, Harbaugh chose the latter. Michigan dared TCU to step on the step, and the frogs did just that. Wolverines stubbornly spent most of the first half (and long stretches of the game) hammering runs between tackles, many of them inside areas, which the horny frogs ate every time.
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TCU’s defense lives on weird fronts, but its stack linebackers and lane safeties are so aggressive and physical downhill. Harbaugh, however, didn’t get his quarterback waivers until late in the semifinals. He didn’t do much to test TCU’s advantage with anything off the zone or even off-pocket plywood until, really, the second half.
Michigan challenged TCU to prove their toughness, and their season is over because of that pick.
“Congratulations to TCU, I think they played a great game,” Harbaugh said. “Very, very opportunistic team. Very resilient team. Really a great team.”
These are all things we knew about TCU’s entry into the CFP, and these are all things that Georgia now has even more evidence of, thanks to Michigan. If you mess up and make the mistake of thinking your physical advantage will erase all mistakes, you will pay the price. It is not a question of “if”, moreover, it is a question of “how much”.
Michigan paid the ultimate price. Georgia are more talented and have more depth than the Wolverines but, by the same logic, will have to be careful with their general plan in attack. Like Michigan, the Bulldogs also like to assert themselves between tackles, both with zone and gap runs — TCU’s 3-3-5 runs are kind of designed to beat with speed and aggression.
Georgia shouldn’t be afraid to play this game on the edge any more than they normally would. The Bulldogs don’t really have a quarterback game like Michigan (which, as mentioned, the Wolverines didn’t take full advantage of), but they do have a bunch of ways to get speed out of the backfield. in space – specifically, the speed of Kenny McIntosh. We’ll see if tight end Darnell Washington (ankle) plays, but Brock Bowers is still a total nightmare. When in doubt, Georgia often finds great success offensively just by planning different things for Bowers until something snaps or pops.
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The other thing to mention here: Georgia just had 42 points and over 500 yards against Ohio State’s 3-3-5. This offense has answers for everything. Smart is the most prepared coach in college football and he has the best roster, so the Bulldogs are quite capable of dominating this game with the snap of a finger.
But they are also capable of being frustrated. If there’s anything TCU’s defense is elitist about, it’s frustrating people.
Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy, who went 20 of 34 for 343 yards and two touchdowns against TCU, also threw two critical six picks. Both were the result of TCU finding ways to play with their eyes.
Note on the first pitch how TCU moves both middle and back as McCarthy slides his tight end through the formation before the snap. TCU safety Millard Bradford (#28) walks to the line of scrimmage and, based on the roster, he now looks like a flat defender. And he’s just that, but what McCarthy forgets due to the move is that slot defender Bud Clark (#26) is there at all. TCU still has the deep vertical route removed, and McCarthy thinks his quick exit to Bell will be wide open because the frogs messed up his mental calculation of where everyone is supposed to be.
Small mistakes can be huge against a team like TCU. Horned frogs live for them and cash in much more often than they don’t.
For TCU, the biggest difference between Georgia and Michigan is in the Bulldogs’ defense. Georgia is bigger, stronger, faster and more explosive than Michigan in almost every part of the field.
Two things that TCU quarterback Max Duggan often succeeds against: pressure and weak points in an area. Georgia, however, can press with three or four people and still come home, and they’ll only play zone defense if they feel like it. This is a physical, men’s football team that will prove itself, not the other way around.
Ohio State has found success against Georgia to a degree few have in recent years because QB CJ Stroud is a first-round pick and WR Marvin Harrison Jr. is perhaps the best player in the country. There are other reasons, like Ohio State’s roster could be second only to Georgia nationally in talent depth. But the Buckeyes nearly caused an upset because their best offensive players excelled and Ryan Day called a terrific game.
For TCU, two things will be imperative:
- Play with the tempo whenever Jalen Carter is on the court.
- Have Duggan empty whatever’s left in the tank with the QB-run game.
TCU running back Kendre Miller, one of the most underrated running backs in the nation, is questionable for this game, but a lot of what creates opportunities for the Horned Frogs offense lives in Duggan. as a constant threat.
It’s in Duggan’s willingness to shoot the ball in short distance situations, and his willingness to move the pocket and attack the man’s cover with his legs (unafraid of how hard he goes). To be touched). He will do these things again and again and again. He’s the best in the country at it, and he just put his body on the line last week against Michigan.
If TCU is to succeed, however, Duggan will need to do everything he did in the semifinals and more. Is he able to reach an even higher level?
I’d say he is, but he’ll need everyone on deck.
Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo is coming off a nightmare of a game against Ohio State, after a nightmare of a game against LSU, so he’ll no doubt be looking to change his fortunes against the Horned Frogs. If he gets too aggressive, it could be a good thing for Duggan and wide receiver Quentin Johnston.
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However, whenever you think about how TCU could squeeze through a crack here or there, you remember that Georgia has very few cracks. Part of what makes TCU’s offense difficult to plan and defend in general is Duggan’s ability to read the whole field in Dykes’ scheme, which stretches the field as wide as possible and tries to create space through training. It’s not unlike what we see from Josh Heupel and Tennessee.
Georgia fans will surely remember the Bulldogs’ response to the Tennessee system: Hit the hell up.
For Bulldogs, the answer here is to be yourself, but also to be careful who you are dealing with. Smart’s team, winners of 16 games in a row, are 60 minutes from history and still hold the title of the most dominant club in the sport.
For TCU, essentially, it’s the same thing: sticking to their identity. The Dykes TCU Club is one of the smartest and best trained football teams in the country. It’s not just Duggan. The whole team plays like this.
It’s the Apprentice Pirate versus Captain Bulldog, for all the marbles. Both coaches – and both teams – have earned the right to be on the national title stage. Exactly as it should be.
(Kirby Smart top photo: Austin McAfee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)