SoFi Stadium
SoFi Stadium. Image fromLA Rams video

Georgia and TCU will meet for college football’s national championship Monday at SoFi Stadium and an Inglewood native could play a big factor in the Horned Frogs’ bid for an upset of the reigning national champions.

With Kendre Miller’s availability uncertain, TCU would again turn to Emari Demercado, who rushed for a career-high 150 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in the Horned Frogs’ 51-45 victory over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Eve that put them in the College Football Playoff title game.

Miller suffered a knee injury against the Wolverines and didn’t touch the ball after the opening drive of the second half. In his final pregame meeting with reporters Sunday morning, coach Sonny Dykes said, “We’ll get a really good sense of what he can and can’t do” in the team’s typical day before the game run-through later Sunday, “then make a decision.”

Miller told ESPN on Saturday he has a sprained MCL in his right knee.

“When you start talking about a knee and a sprained knee and the things that go along with that, potentially, then you’ve got to be very, very careful,” Dykes said. “Obviously Kendre is going to want to play. It’s a big stage. He’s a tough kid.

“But he’s a young man. And our job is to take care of him and make sure that we don’t just see Monday night, that we see the big picture as far as taking care of Kendre’s health and in doing the right thing for him, not just for Monday, but for his immediate future.”

The junior from Mount Enterprise, Texas is third in rushing in the Big 12 Conference and 15th nationally with 1,399 yards. He was among two running backs who were first-team All-Big 12 selections in voting by the conference’s coaches.

Demercado is TCU’s second-leading rusher with 622 yards and six touchdowns on 107 carries. Before the Fiesta Bowl, his career high was 90 yards in a 63-17 loss to Oklahoma State Nov. 13, 2021.

Demercado grew up what he described as a five-minute drive or 15-minute walk from what is now SoFi Stadium, which opened in 2020 at the former site of the Hollywood Park race track.

Demercado said he has never been inside SoFi Stadium, where fans were first allowed to attend games in 2021 after begin barred in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Demercado played his final season of Pop Warner football with the Carson Colts and formed relationships, prompting him to play for Carson High School. After two seasons, Demercado decided Carson “wasn’t really just where I wanted to be,” and decided to transfer to Downey High.

With no scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision teams when he was in high school, Demercado began researching junior college programs and opted for Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.

Demercado was chosen by the California Community College Football Coaches Association as a first-team all-state selection after rushing for 1,026 yards and 15 touchdowns and catching 54 passes for 443 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman in 2017.

TCU was the first school to offer Demercado a scholarship after his season at Saddleback.

Demercado said he “was talking with Pac-12 schools” who wanted him to play another season at Saddleback “because they handed out all their offers for that year so they needed me to be in the next group.”

In his first season with the Horned Frogs, Demercado was fourth in rushing with 224 yards on 57 carries.

Demercado played in four games in 2019, preserving a redshirt season, rushing for 65 yards on 18 carries. Demercado was among 150 first-team selections for the Academic All-Big 12 Football Team, which requires maintaining a 3.20 or better GPA and playing in at least 20% of their team’s scheduled games.

Freshmen and transfers are not eligible in their first year of academic residence.

Demercado rushed for 199 yards on 46 carries in eight games as a junior in 2020 and 446 yards and four touchdowns on 96 carries as a fifth-year senior in 2021, when he was again a first-team selection for the Academic All-Big 12 Football Team.

All players who played in 2020 received an additional year of eligibility. Demercado has used his five seasons at TCU — plus credits received at Saddleback College — to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics, then a master’s degree in business analytics.

Horned Frogs’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Garrett Riley called Demercado “one of the most important pieces for us,” giving the team “a great one-two punch with Kendre.”

“He’s just so consistent in his play, his demeanor, the way he practices,” said Riley, the younger brother of USC coach Lincoln Riley. “That’s something that rubs off on a lot of the other guys as well.

Riley was among the coaches who moved with Dykes from SMU to TCU when he was hired to fill the vacancy created by the firing of Gary Patterson eight games into the 2021 season, his 21st as its coach, when the Horned Frogs were 3-5. They finished the season 5-7.

TCU won its first 12 games of the 2022 season, with five of the victories by eight points or less. The Horned Frogs defeated five ranked opponents — Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas — before their lone loss, a 31-28 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game.

TCU was ranked third in the final College Football Playoff rankings, then defeated second-ranked Michigan in a semifinal.

Georgia (14-0) had only one regular-season game decided by less than 10 points, a 26-22 victory at Missouri Oct. 1, when the Bulldogs scored two touchdowns in the final 9 minutes, 39 seconds to overcome a 10-point deficit.

The Bulldogs were ranked first in the final College Football Playoff national rankings and earned their berth in the College Football Playoff title game by defeating fourth-ranked Ohio State, 42-41, in the second semifinal New Year’s Eve, overcoming a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit in a game that was not decided until Noah Ruggles missed a 50-yard field goal attempt with 3 seconds to play.

The quarterback matchup pits TCU’s Max Duggan, the runner-up in voting for the Heisman Trophy behind USC quarterback Caleb Williams, and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett IV, who finished fourth.

Duggan leads an offense that tops the Football Bowl Subdivision in plays of 50-plus yards, 21, touchdowns of at least 50 yards 14, including 10 of at least 60 yards.

Bennett has quarterbacked Georgia to 16 consecutive victories since its loss to Alabama in the 2021 Southeast Conference Championship.

TCU is averaging 41.1 points per game, tied for fourth among FBS teams, while the Bulldogs are averaging 39.4 points, eighth in the FBS.

Georgia is seeking to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since Alabama in 2011 and 2012. The Horned Frogs are seeking their first title since 1938.

TCU (13-1) are also seeking to become the first team since Michigan State in 1965 to win a national championship after having a losing record the previous season and the fifth team all time.

Oddsmakers have made the Bulldogs a 12 1/2- to 13-point favorite. ESPN Analytics gives Georgia a 72.9% percent chance of winning Monday.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for us, but our guys have never backed down for challenges and they have a lot of confidence in themselves and our program and what we’re trying to do,” Dykes said.

Holly Rowe, who will be a sideline reporter on ESPN’s telecast of the 4:30 p.m. game, told City News Service, “If TCU was completely healthy, we would have a really competitive matchup,” but the possibility of Miller missing the game or only seeing limited action is “really a big deal for TCU,” in facing the leading rushing defense among FBS teams. The Bulldogs are allowing 79.9 rushing yards per game.

Rowe called the Horned Frogs “better than people give them credit for.”

“It’s a very different team — they’re fast, they’re physical and they have terrific skill position players,” Rowe said. “They have big-strike ability. They play fast.

“Georgia is massive. They’re big, they’re strong and that’s tough to overcome sometimes.”

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