C.J. Stroud was a 5-star recruiting prospect who left Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., for Ohio State with scholarship offers from more than 50 Power 5 schools. Stetson Bennett walked on at Georgia with an initial goal simply to earn a scholarship and a fantastical dream of maybe starting a game for them one day.
Yet here they are, both of them quarterbacking their respective teams in the College Football Playoff on Saturday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (8 p.m., ESPN).
Bennett and Stroud were together in New York only three weeks ago, being feted at a Heisman Trophy ceremony in which neither one really expected to win. Neither did, as Stroud finished third and Bennett fourth for college football’s most prestigious award.
On Saturday, they’ll be on opposite sidelines when No. 1 Georgia and No. 4 Ohio State do battle in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. On the line: A berth in the national championship game.
The quarterbacks’ contrasting backgrounds have made for some intriguing discussion in the four-week lead-up to this contest. What if, for instance, Bennett played for the Buckeyes and Stroud had decided to sign with the Bulldogs when Kirby Smart sat in his mother’s living room three years ago.
It’s a realistic scenario, at least from one side. Stroud has said he was “very close” to committing to UGA in the fall of 2019 when Smart flew all the way across the country to meet with Stroud and his mother. In contrast, there is no world in which Bennett would’ve ended up at Ohio State.
“They had two different kind of paths,” Smart said. “C.J. was highly recruited, got to play relatively early in his career. They’ve both had success. I have a lot of respect for the way that both of them treat their teammates and make it more about their teammates than themselves.”
ESPN college football analyst – and former Ohio State quarterback – Kirk Herbstreit contemplated a hypothetical scenario earlier this week in which these two quarterbacks switched rosters.
“They have very contrasting styles, how Georgia attacks and how Ohio State attacks,” said Herbstreit, who will be calling Saturday night’s game. “Stetson Bennett’s skill set fits perfectly what they do. Ohio State fans who haven’t seen him play will see that he is not a distributor. That’s not his only job. His creativity and his shifty (style) in the backfield when people try to get pressure on him is an incredibly underrated asset of his. And I think in bigger games, they do a really good job of his athletic ability and the ability to throw on the run.”
Bennett was an off-and-on starter for the Bulldogs during the 2020 season before giving way to JT Daniels midway through the schedule. But after Daniels was injured in the 2021 opener against Clemson, Bennett edged out teammate Carson Beck in practice to get the nod in the second game of the 2021 season against Alabama-Birmingham.
Bennett passed for five touchdowns in the first half, and offensive coordinator Todd Monken set about re-tooling Georgia’s offense to suit him.
“After UAB, I was like, ‘you know, they are going to play the best player,’” Bennett said this week. “Their job is to win; if they don’t win, they’re going to get fired. They’re making a lot of money right now, and they don’t want to get fired. So, I was like, ‘let’s play!’”
Stroud has pretty much been “the man” since setting foot on campus in Columbus, Ohio, as Justin Fields’ heir apparent. He has completed 69% of his passes for 7,775 yards and 81 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions in the two seasons since.
“C.J. Stroud is prolific in what he does in their offense,” Herbstreit said. “They want to run, but a lot of it is they’re going to spread you out and try to get your defensive backs (isolated) in space. … Now with two years of experience, C.J. being able to get a pre-snap read and reacting to what the defense does, whether they double-team the slot or double-team Marvin Harrison, he finds answers and he finds them quickly.”
Scouring the dozens of breakdowns there are for of Saturday’s matchup, almost every single one gives the edge at quarterback to the Buckeyes. Considering Stroud’s body of work – not to mention his 6-foot-3, 218-pound body – that’s understandable.
Bennett, as he has heard ad nauseum for the entirety of his college career, is too small to truly excel at the quarterback position. Georgia lists him at 5-11, 190 pounds, which actually is closer to accurate than his many critics would have you believe.
Immaterial, Herbstreit insists.
“I don’t know if you could give an edge to either guy because they’re very different,” he said. “If you put them on opposite sides, I’m sure the play-callers and coordinators would figure out a way to utilize their skill sets. But there’s a reason they play where they play, because they fit with the schemes they’re running.”
Another analyst with Buckeyes ties comes to a similar conclusion.
“I think Stetson Bennett’s the most underrated player in college football,” former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I think he’s a winner. I think he plays with his legs, plays with his head. He’s a pretty good passer. Size is an issue, but he plays tough, plays very physical. I think (Ohio State) has an edge, but it’s not as big an edge as everyone thinks.”
There will be, of course, so much more that dictates the outcome of Saturday’s semifinal. It’s the second consecutive year that the Bulldogs have been matched against a Big Ten team in this round. Last season, No. 3 Georgia met No. 2 Michigan in the Orange Bowl and prevailed 34-11 on the way to defeating Alabama in the national championship game.
This year, the No. 2 Wolverines (13-0) are back in the playoff and matched against No. 3 TCU (12-1) in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal in Arizona. Michigan is there because it defeated Stroud and the Buckeyes 45-23 on Nov. 26.
That defeat accounts for a lot of groaning among the Ohio State faithful. It was Stroud’s second consecutive loss in the most important game every year to the Buckeye Nation.
The most cynical in that fan base pointed out that Bennett has a couple of things that Stroud does not: A win over Michigan and Oregon. The Buckeyes suffered a shocking loss to the Ducks to open the 2021 season with Stroud behind center. Georgia defeated Oregon 49-3 to open this season.
Dealing with constant scrutiny and criticism is another area in which Stroud and Bennett are similar.
“Stetson Bennett has a chip on his shoulder,” Herbstreit said. “His own fan base doubting him, I think, drives him to a very high level of performance. Ironically, C.J. Stroud, in this era of social media, from the Oregon game last year to the Michigan game this year, he’s dealt with scrutiny, too. I think that’s a driving force behind his success as well.
“So, two guys playing with a chip on their shoulder despite being Heisman finalists, I find that kind of interesting.”
There are many more areas that may prove more decisive to the outcome of this game. Lines of scrimmage, ultimately, dictate success and failure more than any other aspect of football.
Georgia junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter is a unanimous first-team All-American, despite missing almost half of the season with injuries. He’s completely healthy now and coming off his dominant defensive performance against LSU in the SEC Championship game. The Bulldogs’ defense, a season after seeing eight starters get scooped up in the NFL draft, reloaded to finish No. 2 in points allowed, at 12.8 per game.
Ohio State counters with the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense. Yes, much of that has to do with Stroud and the Buckeyes’ 1,000-yard receivers Marvin Harrison and Emeka Egbuka. But it also has to do with a veteran offensive line led by junior tackle Paris Johnson, a consensus All-American with 25 consecutive starts.
Both teams are missing key players. The Buckeyes will play without star running TreVeyon Henderson and have been without leading receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba all season. Georgia is hoping to get back offensive starters Ladd McConkey, a receiver, and Warren McClendon, the right tackle, from knee injuries sustained in the SEC title game.
But all eyes Saturday will be on these quarterbacks with the disparate paths to the semifinals. Both will be right where they’re supposed to be.
“I’m glad I went where I went, and I’ll ride with that till I die,” said Stroud of choosing the Buckeyes over the Bulldogs three years ago.
“The goal is to win, to be champions. Who cares what everyone thinks?” Bennett said defiantly. “Even if we wouldn’t be here right now (in the playoff), I’d still be the quarterback for the University of Georgia, and these guys would still be my brothers.”