Forty-one years of frustration fell away Monday night. The Georgia Bulldogs won the national championship. They won it by beating Alabama, the program after which coach Kirby Smart has modeled his. On a cold night in a city known for basketball, Georgia completed its climb back to football eminence.

Over those 41 seasons, Georgia had seen 23 national titles taken by colleges from states that border this one. The 1990 UPI championship title was won by Georgia Tech, based in this state’s capital city. Everyone in the neighborhood had a new trophy. Bulldog fans were stuck viewing YouTube clips starring Herschel Walker. They now have something else to watch.

They have a game that Stetson Bennett, the quarterback unloved by a strident segment of Georgia fans, nearly fumbled away. It became a game – this is essentially the Stetson Bennett story in miniature – that saw the same quarterback throw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell to put the Bulldogs ahead with 8:09 remaining.

Ahead to stay. Ahead forever.

Said Bennett: “I said after the fumble that I would not be the reason we lost this game.”

He wasn’t. After two splendid fourth-quarter drives, he became the offensive MVP of the national championship game. We say yet again: Stetson Fleming Bennett IV is among the greatest stories in the history of the sport.

A night of high anxiety ended with happy tears of deliverance. Four times over nine years in games played in Atlanta with some sort of championship at stake, the Bulldogs had seen Alabama override double-figure leads. This game saw Georgia trailing, though never by much. This game also saw Georgia win with the elements that had conjured up an unbeaten regular season – by running the ball late, by letting Bennett make just enough throws and, not incidentally, by defending with the usual focused fury.

The Bulldogs scored the game’s final 20 points. Bennett’s pass to the fabulous freshman tight end Brock Bowers pushed their lead to 26-18 with 3:33 left. Kelee Ringo’s interception of Heisman winner Bryce Young’s pass became a 79-yard touchdown return inside the final minute and removed all doubt. Georgia won 33-18. On the night it mattered, Georgia was better than Bama. Over this championship season, Georgia was better than everybody.

Ringo’s pick-6 prompted Bennett to shed tears on the sideline. The former walk-on had become a championship quarterback. A fan base that wasn’t sure Smart knew how to pick quarterbacks stands convinced that the former Bulldog safety can coach a bit. All that recruiting by Smart and his staff left the Bulldogs not just with the nation’s most gifted team but with its deepest.

“It’s a great moment for the University of Georgia,” Smart said afterward. “It’s a great moment for this team.”

The final two plays saw the Bulldogs sack Young, something this defense couldn’t do once in their SEC championship loss. This game had a different feel from the start. Georgia scored a touchdown on the game’s fourth snap. The points didn’t stand – replay review showed that Bryce Young had flipped the ball forward after being hit by Jordan Davis – but the moment would resonate the rest of the night.

In Round 2, this mighty defense was itself again. Young felt pressure ahead of almost every throw. He threw 26 first-half passes, 15 of those completions. The Tide’s biggest gain was saw receiver Jameson Williams run through Georgia’s secondary unincumbered, much as he’d done in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This time, though, Williams wrenched his knee after catch and crumpled to the turf. He wouldn’t play again.

At first, Bennett seemed overwhelmed by the occasion. He was sacked on the Bulldogs’ first snap. Then he fumbled while scrambling, recovering the ball himself. His first two passes were incomplete. Twice Georgia went three-and-out.

Say this for Bennett, though: He’s not easily deterred. He settled into the game. George Pickens, the great receiver coming off ACL surgery, flung himself under a Bennett rainbow for a 52-yard gain. That led to first-and-goal from the Bama 9. That series ended with Jack Podlesny kicking the tying field goal.

The rest of the half would see more field goals. The Bulldogs trailed 9-6 at the half, having been outgained 216 yards to 153. When these teams met in December, they’d combined for 65 points. On this night, the defenses held sway. Georgia and Bama had scouted each other into a time warp. In the year 2022, the nation was being treated to a game from the ‘60s.

Matters began to swing Georgia’s way late in the third quarter. A 17-play Bama drive spanned 68 yards and seven minutes, 45 seconds. It led to nothing. Jalen Carter blocked a Will Reichard kick that would have made it 12-6. James Cook burst up the middle for 67 yards on the next play. Running behind the giants Carter and Davis, Zamir White scored the game’s first touchdown. Georgia led 13-9.

Bama retook the lead after Bennett lost the ball a millisecond before his hand moved forward. Bama’s Drew Sanders recovered it almost as an afterthought. Four plays later, Bama was in front again. But then, one play after he’d been sacked, Bennett threw long for Mitchell. The rest was one Red & Black moment after another.

Said Davis: “We knew that all the work we’d put in came down to this.”

When last Georgia won a national title, Kirby Smart was five years and eight days old. Georgia hired him away from Alabama to win a championship. It took six seasons, but here he stands, the new king of college football. Here the Bulldogs stand, champions again, champions at last.

ajc.com

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

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