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Liberty Bowl Preview and Prediction: Georgia vs. TCU

Author:
Nick Chubb

Nick Chubb

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Prior to the season, it would not have been particularly bold to predict that the TCU Horned Frogs and Georgia Bulldogs would be squaring off in a bowl game at season’s end. However, it would have been bold to assume that two of college football’s heavyweights would be paired up in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to conclude the 2016 campaign.

It was supposed to be another banner year for Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs. Highly-touted Texas A&M transfer, Kenny Hill, was expected to pick up where star quarterback Trevone Boykin had left off. And a defense that returned seven starters was anticipated to be one of the best in the Big 12 in 2016.

Unfortunately, Hill struggled down the stretch. And the TCU defense never really lived up to its lofty billing en route to a 6-6 season. The Horned Frogs will now look to pick up the pieces and close out the year on a high note with a victory over Georgia. Patterson is 8-2 in his last 10 bowl appearances.

Despite a few question marks, expectations also were high for the Bulldogs under first-year head coach Kirby Smart. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were expected to form one of the nation’s top running back tandems. And freshman quarterback phenom Jacob Eason was supposed to resurrect the passing attack.

The Georgia ground game proved to be solid. However, juggernaut status could never be reached behind a lackluster offensive line. Eason showed flashes of a promising future, but consistency was sorely lacking. While a young defense played fairly well, it wasn’t always enough to make up for an offense that struggled to gain traction at times. Bulldog fans were expecting more, but a 7-5 season was good enough to garner a 20th consecutive trip to a bowl game.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Georgia vs. TCU (Memphis, Tenn.)

Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET

Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium (Memphis, Tenn.)

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Georgia -1

Three Things to Watch

1. Georgia Ground Game vs. TCU Run Defense

The Bulldogs’ running game faced a challenging set of circumstances in 2016. A lingering ankle injury put a damper on an otherwise miraculous comeback story for Nick Chubb. His tag-team partner, Sony Michel, was slowed by a broken arm in the offseason, and running lanes were rarely easy to come by behind a suspect offensive line.

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The good news is that both Chubb and Michel have announced that they will return to school next year. Even better, a promising matchup against a generous TCU run defense awaits. The Horned Frogs have allowed 181 rushing yards per game and 21 rushing touchdowns in 2016. TCU gave up a ridiculous 859 yards and six scores on the ground over its last three contests alone.

Georgia’s offensive line is still a question mark, but this is a matchup definitely favors the Bulldogs, who are 4-0 when Chubb rushes for 100 yards or more.

Related: College Football’s 20 Best Position Battles to Watch in December Bowl Games

2. Kenny Hill vs. the Georgia Pass Defense

While TCU’s junior quarterback has a special skill set as both a passer and a runner, those attributes rarely materialized in the latter half of the season. Hill threw for just 920 yards and three touchdowns in the final six games of the season. The Horned Frogs went 2-4, averaging just 23.2 points per game during that stretch. This production looks even worse (15.4 ppg) when you take out the 66 points TCU scored in one game alone.

On top of Hill’s struggles, he is still battling an ankle injury that could make an already difficult matchup that much tougher. Georgia has done a good job against the pass, coming into this game 18th in the nation at 187 yards per game. In addition, the Bulldogs 15 interceptions this season are tied for the most in the SEC. This is a stat that does not bode well for Hill, who has thrown almost as many picks (12) as touchdown passes (15).

On the bright side, if Hill can return to early-season form, his versatility as a dual-threat quarterback will present some challenges for the Georgia defense, which has struggled in the red zone. The Bulldogs have allowed opponents to come away with points on 35 of 37 trips inside the 20-yard line this season, 29 of those resulting in touchdowns.

3. Jacob Eason vs. TCU Pass Defense

The true freshman quarterback has had his share of jaw-dropping moments in 2016. And it isn’t difficult to see the potential for a very bright future. That said, this has not been the breakout season that Bulldog fans had envisioned prior to his arrival in Athens. Eason has completed just 55 percent of his passes for 2,266 yards, 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Fortunately, Eason has had a month to prepare for what looks to be a reasonably favorable matchup. TCU’s defense ranks just 83rd in the FBS against the pass, allowing 245 yards per game. The Horned Frogs probably aren’t as terrible as that ranking suggests, coming from the pass-heavy Big 12, but it is a promising matchup for the freshman signal-caller nonetheless. Eason will need to be wary of a pass rush that has racked up the sixth-most sacks (40) in the nation this season. Georgia’s offensive line will need to put forth one of its best performances to give its young quarterback the best chance to succeed.

Final Analysis

Despite TCU’s questionable quarterback play this season, the Horned Frogs are a team that can move the football on the ground, averaging close to 200 rushing yards per game. Running back Kyle Hicks averages 5.1 yards per carry and needs just 46 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark. A stellar pass rush also provides a puncher’s chance on the defensive side of the football. TCU appears to have the edge on special teams as well.

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The problem is that the Horned Frogs fall short in just about every other respect in this matchup. A leaky run defense will have its hands full trying to contain Georgia’s elite running backs. And the Bulldog defense should have an answer for just about anything the Horned Frogs can throw at it, including their ground game. Quarterback play could be the x-factor, but with Hill’s struggles down the stretch, the advantage has to go to Jacob Eason there as well.

Prediction: Georgia 28, TCU 17

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.