INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate the present. People can get caught up in “What’s next?” or even be consumed by nostalgia. There are times it can be tough to appreciate and fully comprehend what’s happening in the moment.
For much of Stetson Bennett’s career, he was underappreciated. He quieted most critics a year ago with a national championship. Then, Monday night at SoFi Stadium he finally completed his Hollywood script.
This one spared Georgia fans any stress: The Bulldogs walloped TCU 65-7 in the College Football Playoff national championship with Bennett providing a near perfect performance – and a reminder to appreciate the now. Bennett went 18-of-25 passing for 304 yards and produced six touchdowns (two rushing) across the largest blowout in the CFP. He was named offensive MVP. Bennett has played in four CFP games and was named offensive MVP in each.
Bennett, 25, cemented himself as the best quarterback in Georgia history. It bears repeating: From a statistical and success standpoint, Bennett is the most illustrious passer to wear Bulldogs colors.
“I mean, there’s so many different variables that go in – scheme, players around you,” Bennett said when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked what he thought of being considered perhaps Georgia’s best signal-caller. “I’ve been along for three years, we brought back pretty much the entire core of our offense from last year, so we were all clicking. We had a really good offense. It makes me proud of what I’ve accomplished when I hear that because it means I’ve done some things right, but I don’t know if it’s accurate or not. I grew up watching (Aaron) Murray and (Matthew) Stafford and Shock (D.J. Shockley) and (David) Greene. And who’s to say? Those dudes were all amazing.”
Murray, for the record, tweeted Monday evening that Bennett was the best player in school history. But wherever one ranks Bennett in Bulldogs hierarchy, his story will be told throughout time as an example of perseverance and making the most of oneself and situation. It’s fitting that in his final college performance, the ultimate underdog player dismantled the ultimate underdog team.
Even Bennett’s first pass Monday was an example of his growth. He fired a tight-window throw to Brock Bowers for 21 yards down the middle of the field. Bennett, who’s 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, has physical limitations that are well documented, but his ability to spread the ball – and thread the needle to connect with his playmakers – isn’t questioned.
Four plays later, Bennett dashed 21 yards into the end zone. And the onslaught began.
Georgia decimated TCU, so one or two plays didn’t make a sizable difference. But one key play that helped open the floodgates: Around the 11-minute mark of the second quarter, with Georgia facing a third and 10, Bennett showed the moxie that made him a Bulldogs icon.
With the Horned Frogs showing blitz, Bennett took the snap, immediately evaded a defender and sprinted for the marker. He made it. A couple minutes later, Bennett’s 7-yard touchdown run capped a 92-yard drive that extended Georgia’s lead to 24-7.
“You’ve seen it from him throughout his whole career,” said tight end Brock Bowers, Bennett’s favorite target Monday (seven catches, 152 yards and a touchdown). “He’s just special when it comes to these games. Just shows in the biggest moments and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Georgia led 38-7 at halftime, the most points scored in the first half of a CFP championship. It scored on each of its six drives (five touchdowns). Bennett was masterful, balancing the layups with taking timely calculated risks. He did more of the same in the second half, when Georgia was simply racking up style points.
Bennett accounted for 36 points, tying LSU quarterback Joe Burrow for most produced by an individual in a CFP championship game. The sixth-year senior began his season with a terrific showing against Oregon, one he then called the best performance of his career. He ended his season – and his renowned career – with the game of his life.
“What he did tonight was truly amazing,” coach Kirby Smart said. “He probably had the best game of his career, in my opinion, with some of the checks he made, some of the decisions he made. Just really elite.”
After Bennett handed off to Branson Robinson for a 3-yard gain, Georgia called a timeout at the 13:25 mark of the fourth quarter. Bennett received an ovation as he exited the field for the final time. Carson Beck handled mop-up duty. Two minutes later, Bennett was shown on the video board and received more loud cheers. He finished 29-3 as Georgia’s starter.
“I told all the guys, what are we doing?” Bennett said. “Why don’t we have a play? I was, like, they’re letting me walk out of here. But in the huddle, just as simple as it is, just one last huddle with the guys, you know? And that was special coming off and seeing coach Smart, that was really cool. And I appreciate that.”
“First time he’s ever walked off that I was hugging him,” Smart said, adding his 10-year-old son Andrew was crying in the coach’s office at SoFi Stadium that Bennett was finally leaving. Smart: “I said, he’s 25 years old. He’s got to go. He’s got to leave.”
He’s leaving with quite the legacy. Bennett is the first quarterback to win consecutive championships since AJ McCarron, who guided Alabama to titles in 2011 and 2012 (with Smart as defensive coordinator). Like McCarron, Bennett’s team didn’t win the SEC in the year it won its first title. Also like McCarron, Bennett’s team won the conference the following season en route to a repeat.
Before McCarron, the last quarterbacks to win back-to-back championships were USC’s Matt Leinart (2003-04, the latter of which was vacated) and Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier (1994-95). McCarron and Leinart were four-star recruits, and while the rankings system didn’t exist during Frazier’s younger days, he was extremely highly touted.
Bennett, meanwhile, was a three-star recruit and relatively unknown in Blackshear, Georgia. Some high schoolers are wooed for months, years during the recruiting process; no big-time program wanted Bennett, who wound up walking on at Georgia, where his parents are alumni.
By now, fans know what unfolded in the next several years. A topsy turvy path led him to the 2021 season, when Bennett secured the starting job following J.T. Daniels’ injury in September that year. Georgia kept winning, but Bennett was considered the weak link. Fans and analysts questioned his upside, doubting he could put Georgia over the top.
Recent evidence suggested the doubters were right. The days of winning with a McCarron seemed done. The key was having a Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson or Tua Tagovailoa. Bennett seemed more like a player Georgia would quickly want to replace. Smart remained committed to Bennett, though, an easy choice for him.
Bennett detractors grew louder after Alabama trounced Georgia in the 2021 SEC Championship game. Bennett’s response: Torching Michigan in the semifinal, then outplaying Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young in the fourth quarter of the national championship, leading Georgia to revenge over Alabama and its first championship in four decades.
Georgia 65, TCU 7
One year later, Bennett built on his improbable tale. The Bulldogs went 15-0 with Bennett’s numbers skyrocketing. The Bulldogs trusted Bennett more this season, opening their offense, and he set records. He finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting, even going to New York as a finalist.
Bennett became the first 4,000-yard passer in Georgia history. He’s also the first Bulldog with 4,000 yards of total offense in one campaign. He was the engineer of a team that faced little adversity. Georgia played only two one-possession games. Bennett led game-winning drives in those contests.
“If you are an under-recruited guy, soak that up, but you’ve still got to be the best,” Bennett said as he answered his final question of the post-game presser. “Go be spiteful out there. Be a dog. You’ve got to. But hopefully in 15 years, there’s some kid out there who is being a stud and he remembers watching us play.”
Believe what happened before your eyes: The best quarterback in Bulldogs history finished his career with the best quarterbacked game of the best quarterbacked season in Bulldogs history. Bennett, the walk-on from Blackshear, is among the most important figures in program history. From a macro view, he’s one of the most important people in college football history.
In the present, he’s celebrating becoming a two-time national champion. And in the future, he’ll never be underappreciated again. When it comes to the Stetson Bennett story, one truly had to see it to believe it.
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