ATHENS – In the past two weeks, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett has lived out a lifelong dream and become the feel-good story of the year in the SEC. What happens over the next weeks, though, will go a long way toward determining his legacy.
Bennett will start for the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (2-0) on Saturday against No. 14 Tennessee (3:30 p.m., CBS). That’s all we know for certain. But now the story is not so much about a college kid realizing his goal to one day start for the state university. Now it’s about winning games for a team with the goal of winning the national championship.
The Volunteers (2-0) represent the next hurdle to clear on that path. They’ll arrive in Athens riding an eight-game winning streak and brimming with confidence. That Georgia has dominated Tennessee in the past three years and, really, the past decade, is nothing but trivia.
The Vols arrive unintimidated and eager to prove themselves.
“They’ve got good players, they’ve got good coaches, but we do, too,” Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said of Georgia. “That’s why I came to Tennessee, that’s why these players came to Tennessee, to play in a game like this. So, we’re looking forward to it.”
How Bennett feels about this particular matchup, we can’t be sure. As is standard operating procedure for coach Kirby Smart and newly minted quarterbacks, Bennett has been withheld from the many media opportunities this week.
The last we heard from the 6-foot, 198-pound former walk-on from Blackshear was in the glow of Georgia defeating No. 7 Auburn 27-6 on Saturday. Bennett did exemplary work in that game, his first career start. He competed 61 percent of his passes for 240 yards and a touchdown and led the Bulldogs on four consecutive scoring drives as they built a 24-0 first-half lead.
But even then, Bennett’s sensibilities seemed to be moving from the good times being had to the bigger things now to be done.
“We didn’t have a conversation like that,” Bennett said when asked if the quarterback job as now his to keep. “I mean, if you don’t produce you don’t play. That’s just how it goes.”
Smart reiterated that philosophy when he was asked about Georgia’s quarterback situation this week, which was often. The Bulldogs have at least three other quarterbacks to whom they could turn if Bennett struggles or otherwise has to come out of the game. Sophomores D’Wan Mathis and JT Daniels and freshman Carson Beck all are on scholarship to play the position.
“We’re going to continue to develop all those guys,” Smart said. “I think all those guys are good quarterbacks. … They’re all going to continue to be developed because that’s what they came here to do. So, they’re going to continue to be part of the game plan.”
The 6-6, 210-pound Mathis started the opener at Arkansas but was relieved by Bennett after six unproductive possessions. Mathis also finished the Auburn game with the outcome in hand late in the fourth quarter. Thus far, he has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 55 yards and has netted 6 yards rushing.
The real intrigue remains with Daniels. The 6-3, 210-pound California native is the most experienced of Georgia’s quarterbacks, with 742 career snaps and 12 starts at Southern Cal. He will have been cleared from his 13-month-old ACL tear for 19 days when Georgia and Tennessee take the field Saturday.
Smart was asked if in a season made even more uncertain by the unrelenting presence of the coronavirus, he might prioritize an opportunity to get Daniels in a game even just for a series or two.
“I get to see him every day,” Smart said. “I’ve seen him since he’s been here and he does a good job in practice. He’s practiced the whole time, and he’s really been no different than anybody else in terms of reps because we don’t go live (in practice).”
So far, there’s been nothing to dislike about what the Bulldogs have seen from Bennett, this year or in glimpses as Jake Fromm’s backup last year.
In six career games, Bennett has completed 57 of 84 passes (67.9 percent) for 711 yards and five touchdowns to one interception. In 2020, Bennett is 37-for-57 (64.9%) passing with 451 yards and three touchdowns without a pick.
In addition to operating Todd Monken’s offense with aplomb, Bennett also has proved elusive in the pocket and shown an ability to throw on the run. Bennett made a lot of nice plays in the win over Auburn, but none better than his 17-yard completion to Kearis Jackson on third-and-long in the second quarter. Facing quick, heavy pressure from his right, Bennett pirouetted and rolled to his left. Moving fast, he delivered hard-thrown, perfectly placed ball into Jackson’s chest on the sideline. Bennett completed a 21-yard touchdown pass to George Pickens on the next play.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit emerged impressed.
“I’m more excited about what I saw from Georgia in that game than anything I saw last year under Jake Fromm, just because the rhythm that they had offensively,” Herbstriet said. “They just seemed like they were playing with more of an edge that we haven’t seen in a while.”
It was “vintage Stet,” according to those who have seen Bennett play for many years.
“In high school, he loved Johnny Manziel,” said John DuPont, a teacher at Pierce County High who also calls the school’s games on radio. “He ran like him, too. We used to get called for a lot of holding penalties because he scrambled so much and would keep the play going so long that our O-linemen would get gassed and just hang onto guys.”
Bennett’s father, Stetson Bennett III, said his son always has been able to do that because, in addition to quickness, he has unusually large hands for his size. But Bennett hasn’t had to utilize that particular skill much so far because Georgia’s protection has been good.
Heading into Saturday, the Bulldogs are tied for third in the SEC in fewest number of pressured third-down passes at 22.2 percent. Tennessee and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano ranks second at 20 percent.
But that stat figures to get cranked up for Georgia over the next few games. That starts with Tennessee on Saturday and No. 2-ranked Alabama next week in Tuscaloosa. Opposing teams now have two games worth of video of Bennett at Georgia’s offensive controls, so will be focused on taking away what he does well and forcing him into something else.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him for the way he’s played in the two games he’s come in,” said Pruitt, a defensive coordinator by trade. “You can see his teammates have confidence in him. He’s obviously a smart young man, the way he gets in and out of plays. He plays with confidence.”
That’s the book on Bennett as of now. The Bulldogs can only hope it continues to be.