GLENDALE, Ariz. – TCU thought so much of Max Duggan at the beginning of the season that he lost his job. Georgia seemed like it spent years trying to give its starting quarterback job to anyone not named Stetson Bennett.
If they gave out five stars for resiliency, these two guys would have been some of the highest-rated recruits in the country.
Now the underdogs-turned-legends at their respective schools will fight it out for the national championship on Jan. 9 in Inglewood, California. No. 3 TCU upset No. 2 Michigan 51-45 and No. 1 Georgia rallied to beat No. 4 Ohio State 42-41 on Saturday in a pair of semifinal games that were among the best the College Football Playoff ever has produced.
The encore awaits.
It will be the eighth straight title game with at least one team from the Southeastern Conference. The SEC has won 15 games in the CFP's history while every other conference has combined for 11 wins.
“Now we’ve got to take care of business,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to prepare. We’ve got nine days or whatever to play a really good TCU team.”
If anyone expected Duggan or Bennett to give exuberant soundbites following their thrilling semifinal wins, well, that's just not how these guys are wired. The two veterans talk more like 10-year NFL veterans than a couple of college guys.
“I just try to do my job,” Bennett said.
Despite the setbacks in their careers, the two Heisman Trophy finalists do their jobs very, very well.
Duggan accounted for four touchdowns in TCU's win over Michigan, throwing for two and running for two more. Bennett threw for 398 yards and three touchdowns in the Bulldogs' win over Ohio State, including a brilliant final drive that resulted in a 10-yard touchdown completion to Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds remaining.
“I looked around, and there was just a whole bunch of just determined, strong stares from all the dudes,” Bennett said. “It gave me confidence, and everybody else had confidence when we went down the field.”
Duggan is in his fourth season starting for TCU after coming to the school as a four-star recruit, but the journey hasn't been without hiccups. The 21-year-old needed heart surgery before his sophomore year and played most of last season with a broken bone in his foot.
When new coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Garrett Riley initially chose redshirt freshman Chandler Morris as their starting quarterback this summer, Duggan was disappointed in himself. He said he wasn’t mad at the new coaches, and he never considered leaving TCU.
“You get over it pretty quickly,” Duggan said. “Because there’s a season to be played.”
Morris got hurt in the opener against Colorado, moving Duggan back into a starting role. He has had by far his most productive season, with 3,546 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Horned Frogs won all 12 games in the regular season before falling to Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game.
They still earned a spot in the CFP bracket and as Saturday's win over Michigan proved, they were deserving.
“I think a lot of people were emotional, because you get so close to a league championship," Duggan said. "And then for us to battle back and kind of avenge that loss and be able to win this one tonight against a great opponent and have the opportunity to go play for a national championship, I think just means so much to the guys up here, the guys in the locker room, our coaching staff, our fans, our university.”
As for Bennett, the 25-year-old has never had prototypical size or arm strength, especially for the leader of one of the most talented rosters in the country. The former walk-on who took a detour through junior college has been an unlikely leader of a team packed with blue-chip recruits.
He took hold of the starting job early last season and guided the Bulldogs to their first national championship since 1980. Now he's got a chance for a second title.
No matter what happens on Jan. 9, it's safe to say Duggan and Bennett won't have to pay for a cold beverage in Fort Worth or Athens anytime soon. The two standouts have one more college game remaining.
“We know that we got a bigger one coming up,” Duggan said. “And that’s the one we really want.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas, and AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in Glendale, Arizona, contributed to this report.
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