INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Most TCU players trudged off the field under a red-and-white confetti shower at SoFi Stadium without looking back, heads hanging low after a 65-7 loss slammed the door on a captivating rags-to-riches run that finally placed an underdog on the biggest stage the sport has to offer.

“They beat our ass,” said senior offensive lineman Wes Harris. “They beat us bad, you know? There’s nothing else you can say about that. We got our ass kicked.”

But there’s no shame in getting destroyed by the two-time national champions.

Georgia has set college football’s new benchmark for success and become the envy of everyone in the sport, Alabama included. After a memorable season nearly without precedent in modern history, the Horned Frogs were whipped by a juggernaut without equal in the Bowl Subdivision.

“They didn’t do anything bizarre,” senior tight end Jared Wiley said of the Bulldogs. “I’m not even sure what the word is. They seemed very comfortable in this game.”

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TCU players walk off the field after losing to Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship game at SoFi Stadium.
Reaching this point under new head coach Sonny Dykes after winning five games last season and reloading the roster through the transfer portal, 2022 TCU represents the exception to the rule among the brand-name programs that have played for and won the national championship during the College Football Playoff era.

That establishes a legacy that will last beyond Monday night’s thumping: TCU is the little team that could, a modern-day Cinderella in a sport that doesn’t believe in miracles.

“To be able to say that we’re in the national championship game in year one of everybody kind of coming together finally, that’s a big deal,” Wiley said. “It shouldn’t go discredited just because the final score was what it was tonight.”

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This run could remain an aberration even after the playoff format expands to a 12-team format. That the Horned Frogs reached this point at all still allows other programs cut from a similar cloth to dream big while proving that an outsider can reach this point in the face of the upper crust that dominates the FBS.

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The 13-2 Horned Frogs’ season breathed life into what had become a stale playoff race and should lead other off-the-radar programs to dream big: If they can do it, why not us?

“They’re pointing at us, like, ‘TCU did it, anybody can do it,’” said Chandler Morris, next year’s projected starting quarterback. “That’s going to be their message. We’re going to build off this and try to be in that tier that Georgia and Alabama are on.”

In the end, though, it was too much, too soon for TCU.

The Horned Frogs showed that it’s possible to combine access and opportunity to come out of nowhere to compete with established heavyweight programs for the national championship. In turn, Georgia’s brutal excellence illustrates the difference between competing for a championship and winning one — a miles-wide gap created by the program’s recruiting machine, unmatched depth and incredible talent development.

As the Frogs head into the offseason with new notoriety, heightened expectations and enormous reason for optimism in the team’s direction under Dykes, there’s something to be said of the measuring stick provided by the most lopsided loss in a championship game since the FBS adopted the Bowl Championship Series format in 1998.

“Just the way we played tonight, I feel like there’s lessons all over that field,” said junior safety Mark Perry. “It sucks having the year that we did and going out like that. That’s going to sting. That’s going to sting for a while.”

Lessons learned the hard way can help steer TCU through a new phase: as the hunted instead of the off-the-radar underdog.

Beginning with next year’s season opener against Colorado, the Horned Frogs will be expected to play at a new standard. The last program to make a similar leap onto the national stage was Clemson, which lost to Alabama in 2016 but used that as a springboard to two national championships in the next three seasons.

TCU might not repeat as winners of the Big 12, let alone make a run all the way back to the championship game. But a step back to the fringes of bowl eligibility seems unimaginable, not to mention unacceptable for a team that has tasted the national spotlight and has no plans on handing back a hard-fought seat at the table.

“We’re just going to build off it,” Morris said. “They showed us the blueprint. They showed us how it’s supposed to be done. Obviously, we didn’t get the result we wanted at the end of the year. But at the end of the day, they left us better than how they found it. That’s important, especially at a place like this as we’re building it.”

After spending the majority of this season discounted as a legitimate contender, the Frogs now must battle the negative perception that comes with a historic loss. The result still says less about TCU than it does about Georgia: Maybe only Alabama, losers of two games by a combined four points during the regular season, or Ohio State, which came within a field goal of winning the Peach Bowl, could have stopped the Bulldogs’ seemingly predestined march toward perfection.

By dhandi

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