The stage for Monday night's national championship is set. TCU, the first team from the Big 12 to win a College Football Playoff game and the first from Texas to play for a national title since 2009, will face defending champion Georgia at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
The most dramatic CFP semi-final weekend saw both representatives from the Big Ten, Michigan and Ohio State, eliminated. The two games combined for 179 points and yet were decided by a combined mere seven points. Here's how it unfolded...
Fiesta Bowl - No.3 TCU 51-45 No.2 Michigan
Last year, Cincinnati were college football's fairy tale team, invading the College Football Playoff from the second-tier Group of Five conference football as an unlikely contender, their dreams shattered by a ruthless Alabama team. For this year's fairy tale playoff story, read TCU, a small private university in Fort Worth, Texas, with an enrollment of 12,273 students. The Horned Frogs were unranked at the start of the season, having compiled a 5-7 record last year. They weren't meant to be in the Playoff.
Michigan, representing an enrollment of 48,090 students and a historic gridiron powerhouse, were derailed by national champions Georgia in their heralded return to College Playoff action last year. This was their time to go one step further and avenge their defeat to the Bulldogs in the national championship final. TCU didn't read the script.
A late fumble by Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy somewhat typified a wild afternoon in Glendale, Arizona, as the Wolverines swapped punch-drunk blows with a stubborn TCU team who refused to stay on the ropes and outlasted the Big Ten champions. McCarthy's mishandling on a key last play represented a missed opportunity for his team, who slipped up at the penultimate stage for the second season in a row.
The signs were evident in Michigan's opening drive. Having scored on their first possession in 12 of 13 games this season, the Wolverines fluffed their lines on a "Philly Special" play on 4th-and-goal that didn't fool the TCU defense. McCarthy was smothered and receiver Colston Loveland, ball in hand, had no-one to throw to and was tackled at the Michigan 10-yard line by Dylan Horton. Advantage TCU.
The Horned Frogs, notoriously slow starters, opened the scoring nine minutes in on a 39-yard interception from Bud Clark who picked off J.J. McCarthy and ran the ball in to break the deadlock. The Horned Frogs' fast-tempo offense was unsettling Michigan, who found themselves 14-0 down after quarterback Max Duggan's 1-yard run, capping a 12-play, 76-yard drive.
Duggan, TCU's gritty flame-haired leader, seems to have wrestled his team back from the brink to win a number of second-half comebacks this season. This game continued to deviate from the script. Conscious perhaps, of both their and Michigan's reputation as big second-half teams, were never behind in this game, retaining their lead whenever the Wolverines looked to have gained some momentum. The chapter detailing Michigan's fearsome run game seemed to be lost in translation too. Without star back Blake Corum, the Wolverines were relying on Donovan Edwards, coming in off the back of 401 yards rushing in his previous three games.
Stung from Michigan pre-game claims that they would dominate physically, TCU responded by overpowering the Wolverines on the ground. Running back Emari Demercado, coming in for the injured Kendre Miller, ran for 150 yards and a touchdown. He gets to wrap up his college football career in his home town of Inglewood on Monday night.
A wild third quarter generated 44 combined points, the highest scoring quarter in CFB history. A 34-yard flea-flicker from McCarthy to Ronnie Bell pulled Michigan within five points before a 1-yard Emari Demercado touchdown run and 21-yard pick-six from the outstanding TCU safety Dee Winters, who read a slant pass intended for Loveland.
TCU were up 34-16 with just over two minutes left. Five touchdown drives then followed in rapid succession. McCarthy's ability to extend plays outside the pocket was on show. Michigan's signal-caller scrambled 39 yards to the TCU 20-yard line and then ran in to score on the very next play. Duggan responded with a 1-yard touchdown run following a 69-yard break from Demercardo. Back-to-back Michigan touchdowns followed immediately from Kalel Mullings on a 1-yard run following a 45-yard pass from McCarthy to Ronnie Bell and an 18-yard Roman Wilson touchdown reception that brought the Wolverines back within three points, at 41-38. This was breathless viewing.
Under pressure from an onrushing Michigan defense, Duggan drifted back and threw a short screen pass to his star receiver Quentin Johnson. The 6'4", 215lb first-round draft prospect raced down the field to complete a 76-yard touchdown and stunning response to the Wolverine comeback. A goal line stop by their defense on Michigan's next drive thanks to pressure on McCarthy from the superb Winters set up a 33-yard Griffin Kell field goal which put TCU up 51-38.
Rallying his team in the dying minutes, McCarthy found Wilson deep in the back right corner of the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown. With 52 seconds left, Michigan had one more chance to come back before McCarthy's fumble handed TCU the ball, which Duggan gratefully downed on a knee to seal an extraordinary game.
Peach Bowl - No.1 Georgia 42-41 No.4 Ohio State
WIth TCU awaiting the winner in the final after a classic first semi-final, the second didn't disappoint. This was a battle of college football royalty, two perennial CFB contenders in and storied schools, Georgia and Ohio State, meeting at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Two Heisman Trophy finalists, quarterbacks Stetson Bennett IV and C.J. Stroud, led their teams in a game for the ages.
In another slugfest, Ohio State landed the first blow. With Jaxson Smith-Njigba missing, C.J.Stroud looked for Marvin Harrison, arguably the best receiver in college football. A 31-yard touchdown reception for Harrison capped a four-play, 71-yard drive.
Georgia marched down the field on the next possession, eating up five minutes on an eight-play 75-yard drive that culminated in a 25-yard pass from Bennett to Kenny McIntosh, bringing the Bulldogs level at the end of the first quarter. The Buckeyes responded with two scores in the opening five minutes of the second quarter. Miyan Williams punched in a two-yard run before linebacker Steele Chambers picked off Bennett on Georgia's next possession, handing the ball, and momentum, back to Ohio State.
Stroud capitalised in the face of Georgia's aggressive defense. He skipped past the Bulldogs' 6'3", 300lb defensive lineman and potential No.1 draft pick Jalen Carter like a matador evading an angry bull and his 16-yard pass to for Harrison's second touchdown put Ohio State up 21-7.
Following Kendall Milton's 11-yard scoring run for Georgia, the Bulldogs' next drive saw Kenny McIntosh burst clean through the Ohio State line and seemed destined to score, before agonisingly tripping himself up within touching distance of the Buckeyes' goal line. Stetson Bennett ran in a 3-yard score and the teams were level with six minutes left in the half. A 32-yard field goal from Jack Podlesny gave Georgia their first lead of the game before Ohio State drove down the field on a four-play 75-yard drive in just 55 seconds capped by Stroud's 37-yard scoring pass to Xavier Johnson giving the Buckeyes a 28-24 edge at half time.
Ohio State started quickly. A 10-yard touchdown reception from Emeka Egbuka gave the Buckeyes a 35-24 lead, the most points conceded by Georgia all season. The Bulldogs' defense was struggling in the heat of the Mercedes-Benz stadium, Jalen Carter notably battling fatigue. Whilst the Georgia defense was labouring, their offense was misfiring. Bennett threw four straight interceptions and then took a sack before Podlesny missed a 52-yard field goal in a tought third quarter for the team from Athens. Javon Bullard effectively knocked Marvin Harrison out of the game on a play initially called for targeting but later rescinded, before Ohio State kicker Noah Ruggles kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the Buckeyes a commanding 38-24 lead at the end of the third quarter.
A Podlesny field goal at the start of the fourth quarter preceded a quick-witted piece of coaching from Georgia coach Kirby Smart which may well have saved his team's then-dwindling hopes of defending their crown. Ohio State called a fake punt play on a fourth-and-one play, thinking they'd converted on a direct snap to tight end Mitch Rossi. Smart, sensing the fake, called timeout just before the Buckeyes snapped the ball, negating the play. Ohio State were forced to punt and Georgia profited immediately. Arian Smith's 76-yard touchdown reception on a huge throw from Bennett and Ladd McConkey's two-point conversion brought Georgia back within three points.
C.J. Stroud played arguably one of the most impressive games of his college football career, completing 23 of 34 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. A 17-yard run looked like it would set Ohio State for their next score before he was sacked on a game-shifting 12-yard loss, restricting the Buckeyes to a 48-yard Ruggles field goal, giving Georgia the ball back with 2:43 left and in need of a touchdown. Three completions, including a 35-yard dart from Bennett to Kearis Jackson took Georgia to the Buckeyes' 10-yard line before Adonai Mitchell's touchdown reception returned the lead to the Bulldogs, and the slenderest one-point advantage to defend.
With the game tightly poised, Stroud crouched under center on his team's own 25-yard line. Two runs of 5 and 27 yards for the quarterback and a 12-yard completion to Julian Fleming took Ohio State to Georgia's 32-yard line in the space of thirty seconds. Two incomplete passes and a one-yard run for a loss prompted Ohio State's special teams unit to take the field with eight seconds left.
Up stepped Noah Ruggles to attempt a game-winning 50-yard field goal which he hooked wide left, on the stroke of midnight signalling the onset of 2023 and a heartbreaking defeat for Ohio State as Georgia rushed on to the field in shocked celebration, with the opportunity to make history as the first team to defend their CFP title just a game away.
Kirby Smart was reflective in victory, acknowledging his team will need to step up in the final:
“If we want any chance of winning the national championship, we’ve got to play a lot better football than we played tonight, but we’ve got to keep our resilience,” - Kirby Smart