TCU was predicted to finish seventh in the Big 12 this season, and nobody expected to see the Horned Frogs as one of the last two teams standing in the College Football Playoff title game.

Quarterback Max Duggan wasn’t even picked as the opening-game starter by new coach Sonny Dykes, so his second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting was just as unexpected.

Yet nothing about the third-ranked Horned Frogs feels the least bit astonishing as they try to tame top-ranked Georgia in the national championship game on Monday in Inglewood, Calif.

The Bulldogs (14-0) are vying to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in the CFP era that began in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Horned Frogs (13-1) are looking to finish off an improbable ride.

“I think, in some ways we probably viewed ourselves as (a Cinderella team) early on because we were figuring this thing out,” Dykes said. “I think that if you had asked us before the season started — ‘Would we play for a national championship?’ — most of us probably didn’t think that we would.”

Duggan had passed for 41 touchdowns over the previous three seasons, but Dykes chose Chandler Morris as the starting quarterback for the opener against Colorado.

Morris sustained a knee injury vs. the Buffaloes, though, and Duggan was back on the field. Duggan guided the Horned Frogs through the tough Big 12 schedule and ultimately was invited to the Heisman shindig in New York. He has thrown 32 touchdown passes this season, one shy of Trevone Boykin’s school record set in 2014.

TCU knocked off second-ranked Michigan 51-45 in the semifinals on New Year’s Eve, but that didn’t prevent oddsmakers installing Georgia as 12.5-point favorites. The forecasts came despite the Bulldogs needing to rally from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to post a 42-41 win over fourth-ranked Ohio State in the other semifinal.

“Absolutely, we use it as motivation because why not?” Horned Frogs standout receiver Quentin Johnston said of the team’s underdog status. “It’s one of the main things I feel like has driven us to the success we’ve come to this year. So honestly going to be a lot of outside noise, people projecting us to lose by however many points, but we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and prove them wrong.”

The Bulldogs have their own motivation: winning a second straight title. Their championship last season was the program’s first since the Herschel Walker-led team won the 1980 crown.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns in Georgia’s 33-18 win over Alabama in last season’s title game. The former walk-on has enjoyed a sensational season with 3,823 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He finished fourth in the Heisman balloting.

Bennett would like to see a more crisp performance on Monday than the escape against Ohio State.

“Yeah, I think there were stretches where we didn’t play well,” said Bennett, who has a 28-3 record as a starter. “We’ve just got to clean up those areas where we didn’t play as cleanly for a little bit and not have to play basically perfect like we did in the fourth quarter.”

Winning via shootout hasn’t been the Georgia way during Kirby Smart’s tenure as coach. And overlooking teams on Smart’s watch is a gigantic no-no.

“Tremendous team, tremendous program,” Smart said of the Horned Frogs. “(Dykes has) won wherever he’s been. He’s done a great job. Their kids believe. They have a lot of similarities to our kids in terms of the culture created there, the way they play, the way they believe.”

Despite allowing 71 points over their past two games, Georgia still ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense at 14.8 points per game. The Bulldogs allowed 14 or fewer points eight times, including two shutouts.

TCU is tied for fourth nationally at 41.1 points scored per game but might not have standout running back Kendre Miller (1,399 yards, 17 touchdowns) due to a knee injury sustained in the Michigan game.

Emari Demercado will be the lead back if Miller can’t play. Demercado, a senior, had a career-best 150 rushing yards against Michigan.

Georgia has won all four meetings with TCU, including a 31-23 triumph in the 2016 Liberty Bowl in the most recent clash.

–Field Level Media