The right lesson USC needs to take from Georgia’s 65-7 win over TCU

Seeing Georgia absolutely dismantle TCU on Monday night in Los Angeles made USC coaches, players and fans quite aware of the mountain they need to climb in order to win the national championship of college football. We can all see that USC is plainly not at Georgia’s level. That’s a team — a program — with elite players at most spots on the field. Georgia’s cornerbacks were not rock-solid all season long, and the pass rush wasn’t nearly as dominant as it was last season, when Georgia’s defense played only one subpar game, the 2021 SEC Championship Game against Alabama. Yet, Georgia certainly fits the profile of a team with strength and depth nearly everywhere on the field. TCU got rag-dolled on Monday in SoFi Stadium. The Horned Frogs were not ready for that level of athleticism, and it showed.

What is the most important takeaway from this game? It’s easy to look at Georgia, but in many ways, TCU is the bigger story for reasons we will explain below:

TCU BROKE THE RULES (IN A GOOD WAY)

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THE BIG TCU LESSON

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NUMBERS

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THIS IS ENCOURAGING

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THIS PROGRAM MADE THE NATIONAL TITLE GAME

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WORKING THE PORTAL

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THIS WAS IMPORTANT FOR TCU TO GET TO MONDAY NIGHT

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GOOD SUPPORTING CASTS

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CAM NEWTON IN 2010, CALEB WILLIAMS IN 2023?

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BIG 12 SURPRISE

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NATIONAL NOTEBOOK

Dec 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban talks to his team before the second half against the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia has temporarily taken over the role of the “Death Star” elite program in college football, the gold-standard school Alabama recently was. USC winning the national championship will obviously be very difficult, but TCU got to the national title game in part because Alabama wasn’t there in the other semifinal opposite Georgia. TCU played a good but not great Michigan team. In many ways, making the national championship game depends on this basic reality: Georgia and Alabama not being great together in the same year. As long as one of the two programs is in a down cycle, there’s a real chance to step into the playoff, face a non-SEC school in the semifinals, and make the national title game. The problem is that one of UGA or Bama will be waiting there, but as TCU showed, getting to the championship game is doable if the semifinals lead through a non-Georgia, non-Alabama program.

CLEMSON

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney during the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia Monday, September 5, 2022.

How did TCU get to the national title game? Not just because Bama had a down year and wasn’t there in the semifinals, but also because Clemson wasn’t there. Bama and Clemson formed a brick wall from 2015 through 2021. One of those two teams made the national championship game in those seven consecutive seasons. They played for the national title in three of those seasons, met in the semifinals once. Clemson played for the natty in 2019, Bama in 2020 and 2021.

With Clemson falling off the pace in recent seasons, that provided another opening for TCU. Michigan was a few notches below the Bama-Clemson standard set from 2015-2018. We wrote about this.

RYAN DAY

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day speaks to media following a spring football practice at the Woody Hayes Athletics Center in Columbus on March 22, 2022.

Ryan Day has created erosion at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are good, but they’re also not at the standard Alabama and Clemson set from 2015 through 2018. Playing Ohio State in a possible playoff semifinal is not a piece of cake, but it’s also not the impossible task playing Bama or Clemson was several years ago. Bama and Clemson very rarely lose semifinals when they get into the playoff. They played each other in the 2017 semifinals. Bama lost to Ohio State in 2014 and Clemson lost to Ohio State in 2020. Those are the only semifinals the Tide and Tigers have lost.

Ohio State, right now, is not nearly as good as the teams which beat Bama in 2014 or Clemson in 2020. This is another reason USC has a realistic shot to make the national title game if one of Bama or Georgia has a down year.

HARBAUGH

Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines during action against the TCU Horned Frogs second half action of the Fiesta Bowl Saturday, December 31, 2022.

If Jim Harbaugh leaves for the NFL, Michigan and the Big Ten will likely suffer. Maybe Penn State fills in the gap here and becomes the main challenger to Ohio State. Maybe Luke Fickell revives and improves Wisconsin. However, those are big unknowns. Let’s see what happens with Harbaugh. USC’s ability to make the national title game will likely improve if Harbaugh bolts.

CAN 2023 OKLAHOMA BECOME 2022 TCU?

Oct 1, 2022; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables greets TCU Horned Frogs head coach Sonny Dykes after the game at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma and TCU are not the same kind of program in the same situation, but OU didn’t have a good 2022. TCU did not have a good 2021 season. The Frogs made a huge leap in one season. Oklahoma will try to do the same. It will be fascinating to see if Brent Venables, after a predictably messy first season, gets everything in order in Year 2, or if that becomes a longer-term rebuild for the Sooners.

USC IN FOCUS

What we have tried to illustrate here is that TCU’s improbable rise was enabled by a power vacuum. Alabama was down. Clemson was down. Ohio State was down. Michigan was not as good as its No. 2 national ranking entering the Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal.

Our core thesis is that if one of Alabama or Georgia is down, meaning only one of the two schools makes the playoff, the path to the national title game is wide open. TCU took that path this season.

Beating Bama or Georgia in a national title game is hugely difficult. Those two programs have won the last three titles and have met in two of the last six title games. If they’re both in the semifinals, good luck getting past them. However, if one misses the semis, then just about anyone — TCU was completely off the radar screen when the season began — can come out of nowhere.

USC has its flaws. Patching them up and minimizing them can definitely lead to a title game appearance in 2023.

Not a national championship, but a title game appearance.

BACK TO THE PORTAL

USC has made some amazing gets in the transfer portal. MarShawn Lloyd of South Carolina and Mason Cobb of Oklahoma State lead the way. USC’s offense just needs more linemen. The other position groups on offense are set.

The Trojans have to get more defensive quality in the portal if they want to make this thing work. They simply do not have the high-end talent they need to stand up to the offenses they will see in the Pac-12 in 2023.

CONCLUSION

You can choose to worry about the difficulty of winning the national championship if you’re a USC fan, and that’s perfectly reasonable. However, TCU showed us all that making the national championship game is supremely attainable as long as one of Alabama or Georgia isn’t on top of its game. Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, Oklahoma, and other top national programs are leaving the door open … for USC and everyone else.

That’s a hopeful note on which to conclude the 2022 college football season.

Story originally appeared on Trojans Wire