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Another team-first underdog QB center stage in national title game

Dec 31, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, USA; TCU Horned Frogs quarterback Max Duggan (15) against the Michigan Wolverines during the 2022 Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Forgive the coach of a private Christian college for saying so, but the Hollywood backdrop only adds kerosene to TCU coach Sonny Dykes’ belief his quarterback might be a piece of divine intervention.

Dykes and TCU (13-1) paused more than a time or three this season to ponder the reasons they might be in position to claim a national championship on Monday night, when they draw No. 1 Georgia.

“It’s almost like an act of God that this has happened,” Dykes said in November. “And then you go, ‘Okay, why? Well, here’s this guy that’s played incredibly well at an incredibly important position?'”

Duggan capped his fourth season with the Horned Frogs by traveling to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist, where he shared company with Ohio State’s CJ Stroud and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett. He finished runner-up to USC quarterback Caleb Williams but the trophy he’s after at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., on Monday night is not an individual honor. He wants what Bennett has.

“Max is an awesome dude. We hung out a little bit in New York,” Bennett said of Duggan. “He’s an A-plus dude. He works hard. … But I think he’s the heart and soul of that team. I hadn’t really watched him play, but I’ve watched his interviews, and I’ve watched just how he carried himself up in New York. And he’s a leader. And there’s something to be said for both his story and my story and the fact that we’re here in the end.”

Duggan’s story. It’s underdog triumphant if ever there was one.

An Iowa kid with multiple scholarship offers, Duggan picked TCU primarily for the city feel with the campus in the heart of Fort Worth. He started 10 games as a true freshman and then a pandemic-influenced physical led to the discovery of a rapid heart rate condition, prompting a nine-hour surgery during which catheters were inserted in his neck and groin. A blood clot formed after surgery requiring another operation.

Duggan said it “puts a stop to your life.”

He kept going, fighting for playing time and working through multiple injuries he insisted not be disclosed. He played most of the 2021 season with a broken bone and torn tendon in his foot that required pain-killing injections to tolerate gameday. Duggan said he rarely practiced.

Then the coach that championed his toughness and courage, the reason he was offered a scholarship to TCU — head coach Gary Patterson — was replaced by Dykes.

Dykes informed Duggan, a senior and three-year starter, that his job as QB1 was going to Chandler Morris. The response wasn’t what Dykes expected.

“Yes sir,” Dykes recalled. “I’m going to be the best backup in the country. I’ll help him any way I can.”

But Morris hurt his knee in the season opener at Colorado. Enter Duggan. Cue the organ.

Twelve consecutive wins, with a takedown of heavily favored Michigan on New Year’s Eve, almost all have Duggan’s stamp in a storybook TCU run that’s not over yet.

“What that comes down to, that comes down to confidence,” Dykes said. “And confidence is the result of hard work and doing things that other people aren’t willing to do. And our guys have done that.”

Dykes said he cannot recall one “bad practice” and knows for certain Duggan “never pouted” after being told he wasn’t a starter.

“He never thought of himself one time. How many people can you truly say that about? I’m kind of emotional about it, honestly. He’s the way you’d want your son to handle that situation,” Dykes said.

It’s a similar story for Georgia’s quarterback. The 25-year-old Bennett and head coach Kirby Smart are trying to become the first team to repeat as champions in the College Football Playoff era.

One of their main concerns this week is finding ways to slow Duggan.

“He understands defenses. I think he’s very smart,” Smart said. “There’s no defense he’s going to see that he hasn’t seen before. You’re not tricking an experienced quarterback, very similar with Stetson.”

Bennett, 25, was a walk-on at Georgia. He is four years older than Duggan, and entered college football with little fanfare ranked behind more than 2,500 players in the Class of 2017. He ran the scout team, then left in 2018 for Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss.

But at Jones, Bennett said he found out what he wanted was at Georgia, where “nothing was given.”

He landed back at Georgia, largely laboring in backup duty to the likes of Jake Fromm and JT Daniels. As Smart said last month, “He overcame us,” and eventually settled as the Bulldogs’ starter last September.

For his final act, Bennett gets another chance to prove he’s a trophy QB.

“I try to see things for what they are, and I don’t let people tell me what they are. I try to figure that out on my own. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that,” Bennett said.

–Field Level Media