Stetson Bennett, professional odds conqueror and Heisman Trophy finalist

NEW YORK – There was Stetson Bennett, pride of Blackshear and idol of Athens, eating chicken parmesan with his family at Tony’s in Midtown Manhattan. For just a lunch, he was like everybody else.

But that Friday afternoon was a scarce moment of normalcy for the national champion-turned Heisman Trophy finalist. It’s his second time in New York City, but his first time visiting since becoming one of the more memorable college football players in history.

The 2022 Heisman will be awarded Saturday to one of four quarterbacks, a group that includes Bennett. Just as it seemed his story couldn’t grow grander, it lands on Broadway.

“It means a lot; it means we have a really good team, that a lot of other people did a lot of things so that I could play well,” Bennett said. “It is kind of crazy just to be up here. I walked on (at Georgia). I am glad that you guys (media) are here, a bunch of familiar faces at least. I get homesick.

“It’s crazy and it’s special. I’m excited to see what this whole thing is.”

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Bennett is joined by Caleb Williams (USC), Max Duggan (TCU) and C.J. Stroud (Ohio State). On paper, Bennett would be singled out in a game of “Which of these is not like the other?” And not just because his team is the only undefeated program represented.

By now, his underdog tale is common literature. Most everyone knows of Bennett, the undersized unknown from South Georgia who was part of Georgia’s 2017 recruiting class. They know how he was the scout-team Baker Mayfield ahead of that unforgettable Rose Bowl victory. They know how much he and his family love Georgia, how much coach Kirby Smart has trusted him.

They know how Bennett once left Athens only to return. They know how he was benched (“I was not good enough,” Bennett said in reflection). They know how he outdueled higher touted players en route to becoming a national champion. They even laughed during his much-talked-about “Good Morning America” appearance the morning after roasting Alabama in a title-clinching fourth quarter.

Once again, Bennett has defied convention. Some were surprised by his inclusion in this group, but there’s no play of which he’s more accustomed than “Deliver when I’m disregarded.” His Heisman candidacy is a microcosm of his football life. Bennett not only continuously surpasses expectations – that’s on him – but he consistently surprises as he does – that’s on others.

This time, he’s up for college football’s greatest individual honor at age 25.

“I never really entertained the thought,” Bennett said of becoming a Heisman finalist. He did credit Bulldogs offensive quality-control coach Buster Faulkner, who mentioned the possibility before the season.

“We’ve thrown the ball more this year, for whatever reason,” Bennett said. “We’re scoring more points this year. So far, it’s been more explosive. There has been more asked of me this year, which has been fun for me. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I think that comes from me earning it, me being good enough to do that. I don’t think I necessarily was last year. Some spots, but not all the time.”

Credit: Gabriel Burns

Credit: Gabriel Burns

Even if he doesn’t win – Williams is the betting favorite and certainly drew the most attention during media availability Friday – Bennett already is in rare air among finalists. Much is made of his age, but it’s a testament to his resilience. A necessary ingredient in his unique recipe.

Bennett was born in 1997; so was Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman in 2016 and NFL MVP in 2019, and Kyler Murray, who won the Heisman in 2018. Bennett is four months and 10 days older than Justin Herbert, who’s considered a budding star quarterback in his third NFL season. Bennett is older than two former Alabama quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, who both are 24 and leading likely NFL playoff teams.

He would become the second-oldest Heisman winner, behind only Florida State’s Chris Weinke (28). In fact, Bennett would be only the fifth Heisman winner age 23 or older. The others are Les Horvath (23) in 1944; Billy Sims (23) in 1978; and Joe Burrow, who turned 23 only days before winning the honor in 2019.

As for Bennett’s 2022 contemporaries: Williams is 20, while Duggan and Stroud are 21. “These guys are special dudes,” Bennett said.

During the ages when most Heisman winners achieved glory, Bennett simply was trying to stick around. Bennett’s path is relatable to anyone, unlike, say, the rise of a LeBron James, Bryce Harper or Peyton Manning. Those players were anointed as teenagers and met their hype. Bennett, as a teenager, was quietly setting state high-school records, but his physical build let him slip through the cracks.

That only began what was a challenging college career until Bennett secured the starting job in September 2021.

“Stetson, you can tell every time that something tough has come in his life, he’s stepped up to the plate and took it, put his chin up and his chest out,” said Stroud, whose Buckeyes will face the Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl. “You can’t do anything but respect that. I tip my hat to him.

“At the end of the day, that’s a hard road to go on. I’ve been on it myself, where a lot of people don’t believe in you. They tell you that you’re crazy and your dreams probably won’t work out. But to be honest, if people aren’t telling you that, then your dreams probably aren’t big enough. I tip my hat to him and wish much success and health to him.”

Bennett’s recruiting ranking is irrelevant now, as are his pro prospects. He just capped his second consecutive undefeated regular season with Georgia, this time adding an SEC championship. Georgia has lost one game over the past two years under Bennett. This season, it won every contest by double digits except at Missouri, where they might hang a banner for staying so close.

Keeping with the theme, there still are plenty of Bennett skeptics. Some opine he wasn’t the best player on his team or his offense, so why is he in New York? Others argue that a player such as Williams was more valuable because he lacked the defensive support of Bennett’s team. The player himself is fine with the criticism.

“It probably keeps me humble,” Bennett said. “I don’t go into a workout with a copy of a tweet, but … It’s probably like a culture thing. Those thousands of ‘not good enoughs’ seeped into my brain. And I can say, ‘You’re not there yet.’ Because I remember what it was like to not be there then, and it did kind of suck, so now, it’s just in my (brain) to keep going, ‘We’re still not there yet.’”

Credit: Gabriel Burns

Credit: Gabriel Burns

None of the criticism is within Bennett’s control. Here’s what is: He’s maximized himself during the past two years. He wasn’t flawless this season, as he’d tell you. Georgia’s margin for error was wider than the Hudson. But when the Bulldogs needed Bennett, he provided.

Georgia’s three biggest games came against Oregon, Tennessee and LSU. Bennett ripped through the Ducks’ defense on opening weekend, leading Georgia to a 49-3 win that aged well as Oregon ascended. Tennessee came to Athens as the No. 1 team. Georgia destroyed the Volunteers 27-13 with Bennett outplaying then-Heisman front-runner Hendon Hooker (whom Bennett praised profusely Friday).

In the SEC Championship game, Bennett was sharp yet again. He led an offensive showcase won by Georgia 50-30 over an LSU team that defeated reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young and Alabama weeks earlier.

Bennett’s cumulative stats across those three contests: 65-of-85 passing for 899 yards, 10 touchdowns (eight passing) and no interceptions.

“My uncle told me,” Bennett said, pausing for a moment before stressing he wanted to get the message right. “He told me, ‘If you don’t have any choice, it’s easy.’ So figure out a way.”

Bennett isn’t the favorite for the award. But he has his eyes on another trophy, anyway. And as illustrious as the Heisman is, becoming a back-to-back national-champion quarterback for your childhood team is even more prestigious.

But first, this pitstop in New York City. A weekend of fine dining and schmoozing before he spills ink on The Book of Bennett’s final page.