Georgia TCU Classic College Football Playoff Semifinals

Georgia TCU Classic College Football Playoff Semifinals

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  • January 1, 2023
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ATLANTA — When Ohio State kicker Noah Ruggles stepped up to attempt the game-winning 50-yard field goal, midnight was approaching on the East Coast. As millions waited for the ball to fall and a new year to begin, a boisterous day of college football raced toward a crescendo.

Georgia led by a point over Ohio State, 42-41, and Kirby Smart took time out to try to iron Ruggles. A din of fear, disgust and anticipation filled the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the perfect emotional cocktail for a day of semi-finals that the sport had waited nearly a decade to unfold.

College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock stood unobtrusively near the goal line where Ohio State was trying to kick. He declared victory before a winner was determined. “What a great day for college football,” he beamed.

The first riveting day of semi-finals the sport had seen came at just the right time as the current system is about to come to an end. It is the penultimate year of the current four-team format, as too many mishaps in the previous eight seasons had in part led to the sport expanding to a 12-team playoff starting with the 2024 season.

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The four-team system was too predictable, and then came two games that no one could have foreseen.

Ruggles turned his field goal left, a knuckleball, to stutter in the new year. Georgia sustained a knee once, and the game ended at 12:01 a.m., one of the great days in the sport’s recent history, spanning two different years. Fittingly, the drama couldn’t quite fit into one.

The missed field goal sparked a wild celebration midfield in Georgia, the last reminder of just how absorbing, excruciating, and bewildering college football can be.

On the outskirts of Phoenix, TCU boasted earlier in the day as a 7.5-point underdog and unleashed one of the most devastating upsets in the sport’s recent history. The No. 3 Horned Frogs never flinched, unfolding 51 points in a defense that has averaged 13.4 points per game this season.

In downtown Atlanta, No. 4 Ohio State looked poised to win the game in the last minute of the third quarter until a crucial hit by Georgia’s Javon Bullard prevented a touchdown and put star Ohio State wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. out of the game threw. That goal changed the course of the night for Georgia and could be the turning point as they clinch back-to-back national titles.

The No. 1 Bulldogs will play No. 3 TCU for the national title, with Georgia expecting to become the first title in a decade to win back-to-back titles since Alabama last made the double in 2012.

TCU will be looking for the program’s first national title since 1938, and they’ll invite everyone to assume they’re just SEC fodder. Just ask Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy, who cast her as a Big Ten sidekick. Actually, you couldn’t because he stormed out of his press conference after a question about the loss, sounding a lot less pompous than his pregame predictions that Michigan would be shoving TCU around.

TCU fans cheer during the first half of the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A day of dreaming of the Big Ten having two teams in national title contention ended with the league leaving empty-handed. The league’s focus ranges from the expectant euphoria of the conference’s first national title since 2014 to the leadership issues hanging over the league, with Commissioner Kevin Warren being interviewed to become president of the Chicago Bears. In 2023, it only took a minute for the Big Ten’s troubles to come to the fore.

Here in Atlanta, a veil of missed opportunities hung over the Ohio State locker room. Gene Smith left the dressing room, hugged Ryan Day’s wife Nina, and sauntered off into the night, shaking his head. Staffers muttered about the same hollow feeling that erupted in 2019 when Ohio State missed multiple opportunities to beat a Clemson team led by Trevor Lawrence.

The players and coaches took care of all the little things. The wasted effort of quarterback CJ Stroud, who threw for 348 yards, four touchdowns and suddenly channeled his inner Braxton Miller with a barrage of scrambles in the second half. They lamented the futile efforts of the Ohio State offensive line, which neutralized Jalen Carter.

They wondered what could have been different if not for Harrison’s absence as the offense stalled in the fourth quarter. There was, of course, the missed field goal that would have won the game. The overturned target call for the Harrison hit that would have given Ohio State a first goal. The fourth-quarter defensive collapse after hitting Georgia’s offensive line to knock them out in the third quarter.

“There were a lot of plays that a coach and player would have liked to have had,” said OSU coach Ryan Day. “That’s what happens in a game like this.”

The most searing what-if — and arguably the night’s best coaching counterattack — came when Ohio State appeared to have executed a fake punt in the fourth quarter. On a fourth and one down his own 34-yard line, Ohio State sneaked two offensive linemen into his punt team for the first time this season — guard Donovan Jackson and backup Josh Fryar.

The Buckeyes were 11 points ahead, and tight end Mitch Rossi appeared to be sprinting for a first down that would have gotten them the ball near midfield. Just a split second before snapping, Georgia coach Kirby Smart called a timeout. “It looked like a first down was going to be made,” said Ohio State special teams coach Parker Fleming. “They did a great job calling time out there.”

In the second half of the Michigan game, Ohio State had called a similar play, but the long snapper missed the call, leaving a wide open path for a first down that could have changed the game. The missed opportunity photos live in Twitter lore, and Fleming could only shake his head. “Different formation, slightly different staff,” he said. “Similar scenario, I think.”

And that’s exactly what happens with classic games. The stakes get so high that the momentum shifts violently. And the loser can only dwell on all the things that could have been, as Stroud referred to a “heavy heart” that left the field. “It’s a loss of words,” Stroud said, “when it comes to a game.”

After a day of 179 total points, 2,016 total yards and endless hairpin turns of momentum, midnight struck and the whole sport was left speechless. “That was something special,” said UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett in amazement.

A day of semi-finals that in the past had left spectators bored and dissatisfied ended in dramatic fireworks. Eventually, the drama matched the stakes, and the sport got a celebratory day of semifinals that was long overdue.

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