Can Georgia win back-to-back championships?
LOS ANGELES — It all comes down to this. One game, for it all.
It’s taken a long slog from August camp, some wild upsets along the way and a pair of incredible semifinals, but we have arrived at the national championship game after narrowing 130 FBS teams down to two.
As much as this week’s title tilt at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles is being made out to be about TCU versus Georgia, however, it’s the matchups on the field and between the lines that will ultimately determine who ends up holding that golden trophy up at the end.
Whether you’re a diehard Horned Frogs/Bulldogs supporter, a coach at any level or an NFL scout, here are the top individual matchups to watch for on Monday night as college football wraps up the season with the 2023 National Championship Game.
Ringo put the finishing touches on Georgia’s first title since 1980 when he ran back an interception last January, and will certainly be looking to post a similar highlight against TCU this time around. He faces a much taller task on Monday however — quite literally in the case of defending Johnston, the 6-foot-4 game-breaker who could be the top wideout drafted this spring.
Both guys bring plenty of length and, in many ways, were designed to go up against each other. They each have great top-line speed, tremendous initial burst off the line and plenty of physicality given their lengthy frames.
In the semifinal against Ohio State, Ringo gave up a touchdown to Marvin Harrison Jr. and was flagged for pass interference in the game, but should benefit from defending an offense that wants to attack slightly differently and more directly. Johnston caught six of the Horned Frogs’ 14 receptions in their semifinal upset of Michigan (for 163 yards and a TD) and will need to have a similarly huge game on Monday.
Given the nature of both teams, Georgia likely will throw more than just Ringo at TCU’s star playmaker, and Johnston will likely be a decoy on some plays. But when it’s true mano-a-mano between wideout and defensive back, the fireworks will be sure to follow.
Carter has been a rock in helping UGA survive losing a record eight draft picks off last year’s unit, and has positioned himself favorably to be the next top-five pick out of Athens. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder is a load to handle in the middle of the defense, and he’s an equal opportunity disrupter against the pass as he is in the run game.
That said, he wasn’t super productive last week against Ohio State and will need to elevate his game for the biggest stage has to offer if the Bulldogs want to slow down that productive TCU offense.
Looking to prevent that is a fellow consensus All-American for the Horned Frogs in Avila. A versatile senior who has played up and down the line, he hasn’t allowed a sack all season and has been a big reason why the team is so balanced in the run game with the way he pulls on counter plays to clear the way for Kendre Miller and Emari Demercado.
Avila is built like a Mack truck and really fires off the ball using his low center of gravity, providing the perfect matchup going up against Carter.
Regardless what happens in the title game, Hodges-Tomlinson is likely to go down as one of the greats in program history, between being the nephew of the legendary LaDainian Tomlinson to winning the Thorpe Award this year, to the tenacity and aggressiveness he plays with each and every snap. Though he’s not the biggest guy on the field in a sport trending toward longer corners, he’s every bit as tough as they come and an absolute thorn in the side of opposing offenses all game long given the way he disrupts guys off the line, or comes up to make tackles in the run game.
He’ll have a big challenge ahead in facing off against Smith however, who will be counted on to keep blowing the top off a defense — with even more attention paid to his whereabouts since Darnell Washington’s injury will likely change the base formation some. Smith has legitimate track speed and seems to be open for a huge gain at least once a half for the Bulldogs. Against Ohio State, he needed just three catches to notch 129 yards, and his lone score came on a 76-yard bomb that got the Bulldogs firmly back into the game during the fourth quarter.
If Hodges-Tomlinson can limit Smith out on an island, TCU can do a lot more defensively in their 3-3-5 alignment to really clamp down on everything else that Georgia wants to with the ball in their hands.
Max Duggan will be the first to tell you that his numbers were just pedestrian against Michigan (14-of-29, 225 yards, two TDs, two interceptions) but when his team needed a big play on the big stage with the game getting tight, the Heisman Trophy runner-up was there to deliver.
All of which puts a huge onus on Smith — an All-American on the back end for Georgia’s D — to be aware of what the signal-caller is doing when he’s scrambling, when he’s using play-action or when he just wants to drop back and heave it deep to his speedy playmakers on the outside. In short, a QB who will test a defensive back on each and every snap during the title game.
“(Duggan) understands defenses. I think he’s very smart. There’s no defense he’s going to see that he hasn’t seen before. You’re not tricking an experienced quarterback,” UGA head coach Kirby Smart said. “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.”
The senior also loves to work safeties over the middle of the field and off misdirection, meaning Smith will have his work cut out for him trying to stop it individually and make sure the rest of his teammates know what’s coming their way.
To say Clark was everywhere, seemingly at once, in the semifinal win over the Wolverines might be a bit of an understatement. He picked up a key fumble recovery near the goal line and was tremendous in run support near the line, and his 41-yard pick-six set the early tone for a team that never trailed in the Fiesta Bowl.
Now he just has to do all of that again versus a Heisman Trophy finalist who is 28-3 as a starter. In the biggest game of the season. No biggie.
The good news for Clark is that for as good as Bennett has been on the big stage, he’s susceptible to somebody as quick as the safety is, especially for a quarterback who doesn’t have the arm strength to really challenge outside the hashes and loves to throw to tight ends and running backs. Clark has the ability to undercut routes and get his hands on the ball. The UGA QB also threw two interceptions the last time he played a team based in that 3-3-5 alignment and was slightly suspect last time out against Ohio State.
Bowers leads the Bulldogs in just about every receiving category and has been integral in their ability to play mismatch-centric formations featuring multiple tight ends. He won the Mackey Award this year and is somebody who FOX Sports NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang labeled the best he’s “ever seen” in 25 years of scouting.
The kid is good and, as hard as it is to fathom, getting even better. Keep an eye out for him on jet sweeps and trick plays, too, something he can deploy with ruthless efficiency given his size and speed.
Looking to put a stop to it is one of a select few who can match up even halfway decently in Winters. Though he gives a few inches to the Bulldogs’ star pass-catcher, the senior is a huge asset in coverage (see his 29-yard pick-six against Michigan) plus has the size at 230 pounds to lay a big hit and battle bigger opponents no matter where they line up in the box.
“Georgia has a very good offense. They like to use their tight ends the majority of the time,” Winters said this week. “And I think Bowers is a really good tight end that they’ll try to target against us.”
If Michigan underestimated how physical a team TCU was in their Fiesta Bowl meeting, Horton quickly disabused them of the notion with four sacks (three in the first half) and an afternoon full of other plays in the backfield. He was constantly using his hands to fight off blocks and was borderline unblockable when teaming up with others to run stunts against what was supposed to be the best offensive line in college football.
Horton’s biggest asset is his length at 6-foot-4 and the wingspan to match. He fires off low, has good bend coming off the edge, and doesn’t give up even if the play looks like it’s going away from him.
McClendon doesn’t get as much praise as his running mate at the opposite tackle spot in Broderick Jones but is very good in his own right and among the most experienced linemen up front as a starter in pretty much every game since being a redshirt freshman. He’s extremely long, moves well from side-to-side and really hasn’t seen a pass-rush move he hasn’t defeated before. However, after starting 37 straight games, he missed the Peach Bowl after being injured in the SEC title game and is questionable going into Monday night.
If he doesn’t go, the task of stopping — or slowing down — Horton falls on Mims. His first career start against Ohio State went well enough considering the team won, and it’s not easy to go against a Buckeyes defensive front full of elite players. Mims isn’t quite as athletic as McClendon but what he lacks in that area he more than makes up in terms of size (he’s 6-foot-7) and incredibly long reach to keep defenders away from Bennett and company.
Either way, no matter who is out on the field for top-ranked Georgia or upset-minded TCU on Monday night, it should all make for a fantastic clash that is a fitting conclusion to an amazing 2022 season in college football.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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