T.C.U., Confronting Georgia, Spirals on National Title Stage

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Since the College Football Playoff’s inception, the Big 12 conference has generally been in the conversation but never good enough to make an appearance in the title game.

There were the many Oklahoma teams: one led by Kyler Murray, who went to the Arizona Cardinals, and another led by the eventual Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, and yet another led by the Los Angeles Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield that all came up short in semifinals. There were other teams that were close to the playoff but fell short of being one of the four selectees.

Texas Christian became the conference’s unlikely hero this season as it soared to 13 wins, including one in the semifinal over Michigan, becoming the first Big 12 team to win a game in the playoff format. T.C.U. was facing Georgia in the final — a college football juggernaut — but seemed to perhaps have a chance with a unique defensive style, a Heisman finalist quarterback and one of the best receivers in the nation.

But on Monday night, on the biggest stage and in one of the biggest games for the Big 12 in recent memory, T.C.U. suffered arguably the most embarrassing defeat in College Football Playoff history, losing, 65-7, in a game that was mostly not competitive.

For much of the game, it seemed as if Georgia’s offense was playing a video game on the easiest difficulty level. Georgia bulldozed through T.C.U’s linemen with ease. It forced T.C.U. quarterback Max Duggan into uncharacteristically bad throws, resulting in two bad interceptions. And T.C.U.’s defense forced just one punt and looked confused with every Georgia drive.

“We’re not that kind of football team,” said T.C.U. Coach Sonny Dykes. “If we make those mistakes, we’re not going to win football games. We’re certainly not going to be playing for a national championship.”

Dykes said that he sensed that his team was off on Monday night in the locker room ahead of the game, and had a feeling that there was a lot of “tension” and that his team seemed “just a little too fired up” and “maybe a little too emotional.”

“And as a result, you know, did some things that we don’t normally do,” Dykes said. “I just don’t think we were in the state of mind that we needed to be in, and we’ve got to do a better job trying to get our players there. And obviously, we failed in that regard.”

For the past two weeks, Georgia had given some flashes of vulnerability. It allowed significant passing yardage to Ohio State and Louisiana State and squeaked by the Buckeyes in the semifinal because of Ohio State’s missed field goal. And with its success in the air against Michigan, T.C.U. hoped but failed mightily to do the same against Georgia.

T.C.U., uncharacteristically, was not the resilient team it had been all year. The Horned Frogs had won five games in comeback fashion, often down double digits, but on Monday night seemed to lie down as Georgia ran up the score.

“They didn’t really do anything special,” T.C.U. linebacker Dee Winters said. “We kind of just beat ourselves up. They kind of just executed on our missed alignments and just kept scoring on those. You know, we just kept beating ourselves up, you know, just overthinking.”

Duggan, who finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy, had his worst performance of the season. The struggles were not all his fault. He often faced pressure from Georgia defensive linemen bearing down on him as soon as he received the snap. Still, when there were opportunities to hit open receivers, Duggan routinely missed them.

A prime example came in the second quarter, when Quentin Johnston ran down the middle of the field wide open, but Duggan overthrew him, the ball landing in the hands of Georgia defensive back Javon Bullard.

“I was making bad decisions, and I wasn’t executing well,” Duggan said, later adding, “They had some blitzes, some pressures they got through; I held on to the ball too long, wasn’t getting through reads and was kind of causing trouble for the O-line myself.”

Although the playoff will expand to 12 teams in the 2024 season, the way T.C.U. lost this game will raise more questions and criticism about the seemingly huge gap between the top teams, especially those in the Southeastern Conference, and those in other leagues.

After Kansas State beat T.C.U. in the Big 12 championship game, many clamored for Alabama to supplant the Horned Frogs in the playoff. Alabama then beat Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl by 25 points.

“Look, we’ve got a good football team, and it was a tough one tonight,” Dykes said. He added: “We’re all disappointed we didn’t play better, we didn’t coach better, we didn’t represent our team better than we did tonight. But we’ll learn from it, and next time we’re on a stage like this, we’ll handle it better.”

T.C.U. finished 5-7 last season, and with Duggan leaving for the N.F.L. draft and Johnston likely out the door too, it’s unclear when that next time will be for T.C.U.