INGLEWOOD, Calif. — “You’ve got nine days to become legendary.”
That was Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s message to his team in the postgame locker room following the Bulldogs’ narrow 42-41 escape of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Nine days and three time zones later, the Bulldogs officially are legends. They’ll be remembered as one of the great teams of all-time.
None of them greater than the coach himself and his former walk-on quarterback. After Monday night’s 65-7 victory over TCU to claim the 2022 national championship, Smart and Stetson Bennett each are Georgia “GOATs.” That’s the modern acronym for “Greatest Of All Time.”
Smart wasn’t willing to accept such a label for himself, but he fully endorsed it for his quarterback.
“I know he will have GOAT status in Georgia forever,” Smart said. “And he should.”
It was fitting, then, that Smart called a timeout with 13:25 remaining. He did it so that Bennett, a sixth-year senior, could receive an ovation. They met each other at the yard numbers with a long, emotional embrace.
“One last huddle,” Bennett said. “As simple as that seems, that was special.”
Said Smart, known for chewing out his star signal-caller: “(It was the) first time he’s ever walked off the field and I hugged him.”
They both laughed hard at that one.
With nearly an entire quarter left to play, Bennett already had accounted for six touchdowns, four with his arm and two with his legs. He left with 304 yards on 18-of-25 passing and 39 yards rushing on three carries. That makes him the first 4,000-yard quarterback in UGA history. The 36 points Bennett tied Joe Burrow’s 2019 CFP record.
“I wouldn’t have believed it (his story),” Bennett said if somebody told him how his college career would end. “I don’t know, guess I’d say it’s a good thing I signed with Georgia.”
Both Smart, as coach, and Bennett, as quarterback, are the first in the College Football Playoff era to win back-to-back national football championships. Before that, Alabama was the last team to repeat as champion. Smart was defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide when they repeated in 2012.
Legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who died at the age of 90 on Oct. 28, could not do it despite fielding powerhouse teams in 1980 and ‘81. Likewise, no Georgia quarterback or player of any ilk has contributed to back-to-back titles. Buck Belue was unable to lead the Bulldogs back in 1981, and World War II prevented it in 1943.
The too-small walk-on from Blackshear, Bennett did what none of those others could do. Dismissed for two years for not being good enough to pilot a championship team, Bennett made every play that mattered the past two seasons while leading the Bulldogs to wins in 28 of their past 29 games. With Monday’s victory, he improves to 29-3 as Georgia’s starting quarterback.
As he leaves Georgia, there is no jealousy from teammates, only appreciation.
“I salute my boy,” senior running back Kenny McIntosh said. “He did what he had to do. All those ‘yeah, but’ people that are always talking about him? Yeah, well, he won the championship twice. So there.”
Fittingly, after Bennett went out, sophomore Carson Beck led the Bulldogs on another scoring drive. The final points gave the Bulldogs the largest margin of victory in a playoff championship game. Georgia would score again after that.
There were defensive legends produced as well. Count Javon Bullard among them. A sophomore defensive back from Milledgeville, Bullard atoned for an early defensive-holding penalty with a fumble recovery and two interceptions. His second pick set up Georgia’s final score of the first half with 26 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs went to the halftime locker room leading 38-7, the largest first-half margin in playoff history.
“Obviously it snowballed on us,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes said. “That hasn’t happened to us before this year. We tried to figure a way back in it, and we couldn’t do it. But proud of what our team did this year.”
That Georgia won was no surprise. The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (15-0) entered the final game as 12.5-point favorites over TCU, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. That was the largest line in the era of the playoff, which began in 2014.
That’s because the Horned Frogs (13-2) arrived at SoFi Stadium as the proverbial sports Cinderella. In their first year under Dykes, they were considered a 200-to-1 shot just to make the playoff this season and were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12. Meanwhile, Max Duggan didn’t even begin the season TCU’s starting quarterback. He lost a preseason competition with Chandler Morris.
But Morris was injured in the season opener, Duggan took over midgame and became runner-up for the Heisman Trophy while leading the Frogs to an undefeated regular season. Counted out at every turn, No. 3 TCU was thought to be severely overmatched by Michigan in the semifinals. Yet it won in an exhilarating shootout, 51-45.
When it was over, there could have been track marks from a tank where the Bulldogs had run roughshod over the Frogs. Georgia had 539 yards of offense and had allowed TCU only eight first downs when Smart called off the Dogs. Duggan was sacked six times and while throwing for only 152 yards on 14-of-22 passing with two interceptions.
Though the Bulldogs were considered prohibitive favorites in Monday’s matchup, their accomplishment should not be discounted. They were the sixth defending national champion to make the playoff the following year. Those other five teams were 0-5 in their bid to repeat, with one of them failing to get past the semifinals.
Georgia 65, TCU 7
As for Georgia, this was their third time in the playoff in seven seasons under Smart, and it made the championship game every time. The Bulldogs lost to Alabama in 2017 season CFP final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Smart’s second season, then vanquished the Tide and Smart’s mentor, Nick Saban, 33-18 in Indianapolis last year.
The game was competitive only for the first quarter. It turned after a five-play, 75-yard TCU scoring drive trimmed Georgia’s early lead to 10-7 with 4:45 to remaining. But the Bulldogs answered with a four-play touchdown on three 11-yard plays followed by a 37-yard touchdown pass from Bennett to Ladd McConkey.
From that moment on, it was clear this Georgia team was going to be legendary.
That Georgia accomplished that feat after losing 15 players from the ‘21 team to the NFL draft and another 13 to transfer portal will go down as one of the great coaching feats of all time. That Smart did so while also replacing four assistant coaches only adds to the legend.
Now a new challenge awaits Smart in the Bulldogs. They all fielded numerous questions about a “three-peat.”
Smart didn’t want to hear it.
“The biggest challenge is the same as we face in society – entitlement,” Georgia’s seventh-year coach said. “I personally think next year is going to be much more of a challenge. Last year, we had a bunch of guys leave. This team has a lot of guys coming back. The disease that comes into a young program is entitlement. We have to work like we work for this one.”
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