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TCU was a deserving finalist and college football is better with variety

TCU’s Jaionte McMillan walks off the field after being defeated by the Georgia Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff national championship game. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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INGLEWOOD, Calif. — In the most elitist of all major American sports, it doesn’t take much variety for college football to feel like it’s experiencing historic change. The sport happened upon a shooting star Monday night — a title game pitting a requisite superpower against a private research school from Fort Worth originally known as Add-Ran Male and Female College — and you could’ve sworn you had never seen anything like it.

You also probably vowed never to re-watch it, unless you wish to memorialize the Georgia Bulldogs’ pursuit of dynasty.

With a forceful 65-7 domination of Texas Christian on Monday night, Georgia became the first team in nine editions of the College Football Playoff to repeat as national champion. Because former Nick Saban assistant Kirby Smart leads the Bulldogs, there are traces of Alabama’s DNA in the program, but they are something different: a contemporary model, just as scary but more airtight as they live out this moment. They have much work to do to match the length and consistency of a Crimson Tide run that has yet to fully end. However, without question, no rival team during the Saban era has presented such a valid claim to the throne.

Georgia hits repeat, defends national title with CFP final rout of TCU

For that reason, the lasting impression of this one-sided championship game should not include any accusations of TCU fraudulence. Ridicule the Horned Frogs if you must, but know that Georgia could have made almost any challenger seem unworthy. The Bulldogs have spent the past two seasons proving that, winning 29 of 30 games during that span. After avenging an SEC title game loss to Alabama to win last year’s national championship, they just went 15-0 for an encore. And that was after losing 15 players to the NFL draft, five of whom went in the first round.

The magical ride of TCU didn’t simply end. Georgia repossessed it. After Ohio State scared the Bulldogs with a near-flawless performance in the semifinal, they were done leaving doubt. And so this showdown, which began as a miraculous display of inclusion for a sport that would rather remain inaccessible, turned into a coronation of the most elite of the elites.

A fresh and unlikely matchup couldn’t upstage inevitability. Still, it was a worthwhile experiment. The Horned Frogs made it here. They weren’t granted an exemption. They belonged, and despite this blowout, that 51-45 semifinal victory over Michigan confirmed they were as virtuous as any team with a playoff résumé not named Georgia. They defied long odds after finishing 5-7 last season, hiring a new coach and cobbling together a team of transfers and undervalued holdovers.

They’re one of the wildest stories college football has ever produced. But that’s as sad as it is inspiring. TCU didn’t really come out of nowhere. It is one of just 65 colleges with legitimate access to this dream. That number incorporates independent giant Notre Dame and every Power Five conference representative. There are 131 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The loosest interpretation of the so-called haves and have-nots is a virtual 50/50 split, but in practice, the highest level is even more sequestered.

If it takes leviathans — and neighboring programs that can act like they belong — to compete, the concept of the little guy gets skewed. TCU is an oddity, not a radical revolutionary that will forever redefine the sport. Still, the Horned Frogs’ quest to upend Georgia represented an original and charming title game matchup that made you think beyond the programs that scrape college football’s sky.

It didn’t need the promise of a great game to make an important statement about the future of a chaotic sport that’s about to become more exclusive through conference realignment and stage a more inclusive postseason through an expanded playoff.

TCU was overmatched, but it made noise at the perfect time. This game arrived just in time, with the SEC and Big Ten poised to swell into invulnerability and the College Football Playoff set to grow from four to 12 teams during the 2024 season.

This penultimate four-team playoff produced the most thrilling and highest-scoring semifinal round in its nine-year history. TCU became the first Big 12 team to participate in the championship game — not Texas or Oklahoma, which will exit for the SEC and encounter Georgia’s indomitability soon. Even as college football is set to become snobbier and create a higher society with super conferences, this title game is a reminder that national championships are far more endearing when it feels like the nation actually competed for the crown. And while great champions are easily identifiable and carry lasting respect no matter the journey they took, it is most compelling to witness a robust playoff that challenges our assumptions, offers surprises and forces the winner to take an arduous path to verify or eclipse what it showed in the regular season.

With a 12-team playoff on the horizon, players transferring freely and team-building dynamics shifting, there will be more TCUs in the future. They may not all make it to the title game — and if they do, let’s hope they can be more competitive — but the postseason will be blessed with variety and improbable moments and even more widespread interest. That’s the magic of accessibility.

College Football Playoff highlights: Georgia routs TCU, becoming back-to-back national champion

“I think 12 is going to be great,” TCU Coach Sonny Dykes said of the expanded playoff. “There’s a lot of good football teams that deserve to be in the playoff. And I’ve always believed that the cream rises, and the more opportunities that schools outside of the traditional brands get, the more those schools can become traditional brands.”

In terms of raw talent, Monday night could have presented a half-dozen or so better matchups on paper for Georgia. But that wouldn’t have guaranteed a closer game. During the College Football Playoff era, six of the nine title games have been decided by at least 15 points. The three close games were all in a row: Alabama 45-40 over Clemson to end the 2015 season, Clemson’s 35-31 revenge to close 2016 and Alabama 26-23 over Georgia in overtime the next year. But these are the scores that have been the norm: 42-20, 44-16, 42-25, 52-24 and 33-18. Although this game stunk the most, there have been a lot of funky Monday nights. Even at the top of college football, there are often tremendous gaps.

On this night, Georgia wasn’t going to stop until it made history. TCU suffered the humiliation, but the Bulldogs delivered a blow intended for all. They made the entire disjointed sport bow to their dominance.