Big Plays, Stifling Coverages Clash in CFP Championship Game

Georgia Bulldogs TE Brock Bowers
Georgia Bulldogs TE Brock Bowers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA National Championship - It would be virtually impossible to read and watch every profile of Max Duggan ahead of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. The story of a quarterback overcoming a heart condition, a spate of injuries, and a demotion from the starting role, then leading a team from 5-7 to the title game through countless close wins is straight out of a Hollywood film. Duggan and the TCU Horned Frogs—13-1 following an upset of Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl—are such a remarkable underdog that Stetson Bennett, a walk-on who led Georgia to its first title since 1980 and has them in line to repeat, is effectively the antagonist here.

In the midst of this celebration of that growing legend, the quarterback who briefly deposed him as the starter has been largely forgotten. While Duggan took most of the snaps in 2021, throwing 227 of TCU's 310 passes and 16 of their 19 touchdowns, head coach Sonny Dykes initially settled on Chandler Morris, who shattered Baylor's playoff hopes with a 461-yard performance, for the 2022 season. The former Oklahoma transfer sprained his knee in the opener against Colorado, Duggan took over and led the offense to more points in one quarter than Morris had in three, and the rest is history.

Could Morris have done what Duggan has for the Horned Frogs? It's hard to say—sure, the offense was less potent in his one start this season, but he was as good in 2021, if not better. In any case, while he's fully healthy now (and appeared briefly against Iowa State), he's understandably sidelined as long as he's sharing the quarterback room with a Heisman Trophy runner-up and Davey O'Brien Award-winner.

There is, of course, as much empty talk as ever about student-athletes who play the game the right way and stay loyal to their team. One could cast Morris, who's staying at TCU despite losing his job for this year and possibly the next, as that archetype ... as long as you ignore that he did leave Oklahoma when he lost out to Spencer Rattler and Tanner Mordecai. Deciding not to transfer isn't a decision rooted in morality—it can't be, in a world where programs can offer life-changing money—but it can indicate a willingness to bet on oneself that has defined TCU's success. It's no accident that the Frogs retained nearly every key player from 2021 despite a coaching change that could have spurred an exodus, and they're in position to snap an 84-year title drought because of it. Duggan is emblematic of that success, but so is Morris, and they both deserve a share of the glory in what could be the most improbable title run in decades.

All times are listed as Eastern.

College Football Playoff National Championship Game
Inglewood, California
Georgia Bulldogs (-13) vs. TCU Horned Frogs
Monday, January 9, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)


Overall Georgia TCU
2022 F+ 1 6
When Georgia has the ball Offense Defense
2022 F+ 4 27
2022 EPA/pass 5 65
2022 EPA/rush 67 46
When TCU has the ball Defense Offense
2022 F+ 2 8
2022 EPA/pass 23 22
2022 EPA/rush 1 25

Morris and Duggan are both inspiring stories, but there's a reason the latter will, barring disaster, lead TCU in pursuit of a miraculous national title. Dykes and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley have built their success on explosiveness, and Duggan has emerged as one of the nation's best big-play threats. Only three quarterbacks in the Power 5 have more 30-yard passes than him, two of whom finished just ahead and behind in the Heisman chase: his 14 50-yard passes are nearly double that of the next-best P5 passer. On passes to receivers at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, nobody has more than Duggan's 18 touchdowns. Nimble receiver Quentin Johnston is on the other end of many such passes—his 13 receptions of 30 or more yards rank fourth nationally. While the Horned Frogs don't rely solely on the deep ball, even when passing, it's undeniably a key element of their offense.

Much has been written about the nature of offenses that rely on explosive plays. They often struggle against tight, swarming defenses designed to limit them—which Georgia can do very well, as seen when they stifled a dynamic Tennessee attack. And the trade-off of building an offense on successful plays that are rarer, but bigger, runs an inherently high risk of those plays drying up at a critical juncture. The script for TCU to lose in a blowout is obvious: a few deep passes are misplaced, a few breakaway runs are shut down quickly, and Georgia dismantles a vulnerable defense to keep the Frogs playing from behind most of the way.

This was all true when the Horned Frogs played Michigan, though. The Bulldogs, with their defensive depth and methodical offense, aren't a great matchup for TCU, but the Wolverines looked like an even worse one. Their defense was among the very best in limiting big plays, and their deep rushing corps and short passing game were primed to tear up the Frogs' weak defensive line. Michigan, like Georgia, was simply good at too many things for their relatively one-dimensional opponent to handle.

Of course, none of that turned out to be accurate, for a number of reasons. TCU had some help from fortunate sequencing—most notably, they got away with zero points allowed on two early Michigan drives that included 50-yard plays—but in many ways, they simply outplayed the Wolverines. While Duggan, like counterpart J.J. McCarthy, was up and down, the Frogs turned the expected narrative on its head and dominated the game on the ground. And it's here that TCU has separated itself from the reputation of big-play offenses as gimmicky and prone to falling flat against more complete defenses.

Teams that try to take the top off opposing secondaries, like the Frogs, often pair boom-or-bust passing with a much steadier run game that they can fall back on when the deep shots don't fall. Notably, that Tennessee offense that the Bulldogs throttled in a 27-13 win relied on just such a rushing attack; the Volunteers' 12.8% explosiveness on run plays this season was pedestrian (71st), but their 51.2% success rate on the ground (12th) complemented dynamic passer Hendon Hooker aptly. For all the moving pieces and statistics that can be used to measure this, it's based on a deeply fundamental element of football logic: establish the run, and your opponent can't sell out to stop the pass at all levels.

More than most offenses, however, this sort of pairing can fall apart if the rushing corps is unable to get going. Georgia's run defense is among the nation's most efficient in every way, and it held the Volunteers to a mere 94 yards on 42 carries, allowing the secondary to shut down Hooker through the air with constrictive man defense. A similar performance was key to the Bulldogs' runaway SEC Championship Game win over LSU; with the exception of one 47-yard run, the Tigers were held to zero rushing yards on 19 other attempts, and the secondary held its own against a pass-heavy offense until garbage time.

In Ohio State's narrow semifinal loss against Georgia, we saw one way a team can overcome this strength of Georgia's defense: lead most of the way and move the ball more with chunk passing plays than with runs. It didn't quite work out for the Buckeyes, who struggled to gain ground on their final, do-or-die possession, but it was clearly a blueprint that could have worked. If you have an offense that can make progress without ever needing to fully establish a dangerous rushing attack, it's less likely to fully break down if Georgia beats it at the line.

TCU's method is a very different one. This run game isn't just a tool used to provide a high-success-rate backbone for a big-pass offense; it is, in its own right, an extremely explosive attack. The Frogs' Kendre Miller (questionable to return for this game) and Emeri Demercado spread their rushes across every gap in the offensive line, something teams such as Tennessee and LSU don't do as much. Yes, TCU will run up the middle, but they'll also look to beat Georgia's talented defensive line around the edge and get into the second level. In this way, their offensive options harmonize with each other beautifully: the run sets up the pass by drawing linebackers in, of course, but the pass also sets up the run by keeping linebackers in coverage and creating opportunities for big gains underneath. It's the perfect offensive strategy for a team in TCU's position—not only a way of minimizing risk by creating more options for explosive plays, but also a way of stressing opponents' second- and third-level defense and lessening the importance of trench play, where teams such as Texas and Michigan would otherwise dominate them with talent.

It's impossible to assume that any team can score on Georgia's defense, even with its cracks in pass defense this season, but the Horned Frogs are better equipped to do so than their recruited talent might suggest. Assuming everything goes right for them on offense, though, can they get enough stops (or turnovers) to keep the Bulldogs within reach? This matchup isn't as much of an uphill battle in terms of raw size or strength—Bennett is emblematic of the way offensive coordinator Todd Monken has elected to do more with less—but Georgia has put together one of the most efficient, productive attacks in the nation.

Where the Bulldogs will look to dominate physically is up front, facing the weak front end of TCU's 3-3-5 defense that many expected Michigan to bulldoze. But the Frogs have actually been fairly solid in short pass defense, Bennett's bread and butter, which is a focal element of coordinator Joe Gillespie's approach. Using their numbers in the secondary to limit bigger passes, TCU's linebackers will typically hesitate to let a play develop before committing to coverage or run defense, locking down rushes and short passes with tight second-level protection.

The Frogs' defense is far from perfect—that secondary has been outmatched at times despite its high-level players, ranking 108th in explosive pass rate allowed—but like their offense, it's deceptively capable when facing an apparent mismatch in talent. Perhaps more than anything else, this unit is why they were able to hold on against teams such as Texas and Michigan, locking down offenses that relied on physical rushing and short-yardage passing.

For the Bulldogs to take advantage of their opponent's defensive weaknesses, they need Bennett to show his poise as an experienced leader. Georgia's offense has the pieces to beat the Frogs deep, where they can find themselves outmanned despite their base alignment, but targeting this secondary frequently is a risky venture. TCU ranks 19th in defensive back havoc rate, and they have intercepted at least one pass in 11 of 14 games this year, including two against McCarthy in their last outing. Breakout corner Bud Clark has led the way, claiming a starting role early in the season and leading the team with five interceptions, including a pick-six in the Fiesta Bowl. Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and Josh Newton have been consistent forces as well, with three picks apiece and a combined 4.2 yards allowed per target.

TCU's safeties, however, aren't as exceptional; Millard Bradford is the only one with an interception, and the linebackers have played a more effective role in covering the middle of the field. Limiting playmakers Brock Bowers (the John Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end), Ladd McConkey (second-team all-SEC, though playing through tendonitis), and Adonai Mitchell (40-yard touchdown reception against Ohio State) might stretch the coverage thin, and they could lead Georgia to a blowout win.

Nevertheless, the formula for an upset is far from outlandish. Georgia is built to bludgeon teams with its physical advantages, and TCU is uniquely built to overcome that talent gap, as we have seen before. Whether they can outcoach the Bulldogs is another question, but this matchup features many of the game's brightest minds on both sides. In a season defined by underdogs going further than anyone thought possible, it's impossible to count the Horned Frogs out in a captivating showdown for the national championship.

Watch for:

  • Will TCU's pass rush be able to blitz Bennett and pressure him into making difficult reads against a deceptive defense?
  • Can the Horned Frogs (22nd in success rate allowed on passing downs) get Georgia's offense (second in EPA and success rate on passing downs) off the field?
  • How much will the Bulldogs' defensive discipline limit TCU's ability to turn big plays into huge ones in the open field?

FEI Outright Pick: Georgia by 13.5.
FEI's pick ATS: Georgia (-13).
Preston's pick ATS: TCU (+13).
FEI's picks ATS in bowls last week: 6-7.
FEI's picks ATS in 2022: 55-68-2.
Preston's picks ATS in bowls last week: 3-10.
Preston's picks ATS in 2022: 59-65-2.


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