QB Stetson Bennett is living out his dream with Georgia

ATHENS – A lot of people may not realize it, but Stetson Bennett won’t be playing in his first SEC Championship game when he starts at quarterback for the No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday against No. 3 Alabama.

Bennett actually played in the 2019 game against then-No. 1 LSU. He came in for one play in relief of starter Jake Fromm. Facing third-and-17 at Georgia’s 34-yard line, Bennett threw an incompletion high over the head of Matt Landers. The Bulldogs, trailing 14-3 at 6:54 mark of the second quarter, then punted.

Bennett remembers it well. He laughed at that memory on Monday.

“When I saw Fromm go down, I just sprinted to my helmet, picked it up and I just felt this giant shock of lightning run through me,” Bennett said Monday. “‘I’m about to go into the SEC Championship game.’ I wasn’t expecting that.”

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Bennett will be expecting to be in the game this Saturday. In fact, the redshirt senior from Blackshear will get his ninth consecutive start and 10th overall for the Bulldogs this season when they take on the Crimson Tide in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“So, yeah, I think it will be a little bit different,” Bennett cracked.

Quarterback play will be one of the more interesting matchups in the latest Georgia-Alabama showdown. The two teams will be meeting for the fourth time in the last five years when they play Saturday in Atlanta.

Bennett has been around for most of that. Including backup roles and a stint in junior college, Bennett will be playing in his 37th college football game on Saturday. So, the former walk-on enters the competition wearing the label of grizzled veteran and blue-collar achiever.

His Alabama counterpart, Bryce Young, comes in playing the role of young phenom. He came to Tuscaloosa as a 5-star signee and was the No. 2-rated prospect in the nation in the recruiting class of 2020.

Many college football observers believe the 6-foot, 194-pound sophomore from Santa Ana, Calif., might have wrapped up his bid for the Heisman Trophy when he led the Crimson Tide (11-1, 7- SEC) on a 97-yard scoring drive in the final minutes of regulation Saturday at Auburn sent the game into overtime. Young hit John Metchie with the game-winning, two-point score in the fourth overtime, 24-22.

That was actually one of Young’s more modest overall games as he finished with 317 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception. But he arrives in Atlanta with some eye-popping numbers: 69% passing for 3,901 yards with 40 touchdowns and four interceptions. The Crimson Tide is averaging an SEC-best 42.7 points and 492.2 yards per game.

“They have really elite wideouts, but what puts them over the top is the distributor,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of Young and Alabama’s passing attack. “He is an incredible athlete, player, decision-maker. What he didn’t get enough credit for is when the play breaks down, his skill set to deliver the ball, make people miss, set up rushers. He’s like an elite point guard that can distribute the ball, and when he’s dribbling down the court.”

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Bennett has played a little bit of that role for Georgia as well. His ability to run with the football while also drawing in secondaries with roll-outs and bootlegs has provided the Bulldogs with a dimension they didn’t have when JT Daniels was at the controls.

Daniels, by the way, is quite familiar with Young. The two quarterbacks both played at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. Young succeeded Daniels at that famous quarterback-producing school and, at one time, was expected to follow Daniels to USC.

“I’ve known JT for a while; we’ve known their family for a while,” said Young, speaking on an SEC Championship teleconference call Monday. “That’s someone that I’m close with and wish nothing but the best for. But, you know, in a week like this, especially for what the game is and for what everything means, I’m on Alabama, and he’s on Georgia. So, for us, it’s not a huge amount of communication going on.”

Young’s scenario is completely different than Bennett’s. Georgia fans know it intimately: Kid from Blackshear raised by UGA-alum parents who took him to Georgia games every year since he was in diapers.

Bennett has shared before how as a little boy he’d dress up in his makeshift Georgia uniform and pretend to be quarterbacking the Bulldogs to a championship. Saturday, he gets a chance to live out that dream against college football’s perennial powerhouse program.

Now that he’s in the moment, Bennett insist it won’t be too big for him. He already played Alabama last year in Tuscaloosa. And while that wasn’t a great performance for him -- 45% passing, 2 TDs, 3 INTs -- it remains one he can draw on and learn from.

“Stetson has been able to grow from looking back at that game,” Smart said Monday. “I don’t know what that was, his ... fourth start. He’s played a lot more football now. Certainly, he has improved in terms of decision-making.“

CBS will surely revisit Bennett’s story Saturday and might even show pictures of the little kid from Blackshear wearing the oversized Georgia helmet running around in the backyard. But Bennett says he won’t be thinking about anything other than what he needs to do to help the Bulldogs beat Bama on Saturday.

“Yeah, I don’t really worry about what other people say about any of that stuff,” said Bennett, surrounded by microphones, cameras and a social-distanced crowd of reporters in Georgia’s Butts-Mehre Complex on Monday. “My job is just to go out there and complete passes, get the offense in the best play possible and execute. So, I’ll let all the story-telling and narrative write itself.”

It has been a pretty good tome, so far.

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