Georgia’s Stetson Bennett deserves to be Heisman Trophy finalist

Credit: Bob Andres for the Atlanta Constitution

Credit: Bob Andres for the Atlanta Constitution

Stetson Bennett will be in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation Saturday. There should be no controversy about that. Georgia’s quarterback is an “outstanding college football player” just like the other finalists: USC’s Caleb Williams, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and TCU’s Max Duggan.

And yet Bennett’s inclusion among the top four in voting for the Heisman has raised protests from critics who say he doesn’t belong on the stage with the other three.

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Much of the heckling has come from Tennessee fans who are upset because their quarterback, Hendon Hooker, isn’t among the top four. I’ve seen national media speculate that Bennett got votes only because he happens to be the QB for the No. 1 team. There’s a perception that Bennett has been just OK, and Georgia is undefeated because he’s been carried by a great running game and dominant defense.

I suppose the dismissals of Bennett shouldn’t be surprising by now. It even took Georgia fans some time to warm to the idea that he’s a good quarterback. His path from walk-on to starter for the college team he’s always loved makes for a great story. It also has the effect of making it harder to appreciate his talent. The same goes for Bennett’s relatively small stature and UGA’s reputation as Running Back U.

To me, it’s obvious that Bennett belongs on that New York stage. I don’t have a Heisman vote. If I did, Williams would be my first choice, but Bennett would be one of the other two players listed on my ballot. That’s not the same thing as saying Bennett is one of the top three college football players. The award has never been about that.

If that were the case, then Charles Woodson wouldn’t be the only full-time defensive player to win the Heisman. At some point over 86 years, at least one offensive lineman would crack the top three in voting. The Heisman essentially is an award for the best running back or quarterback. Bennett is a standout quarterback, so he should be a Heisman finalist.

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Maybe I’m biased. I’ve watched Bennett closely for longer than the other Heisman candidates. Also, I like being right. I was an early adopter of the opinion that Bennett is a very good quarterback. That was when everyone kept waiting for JT Daniels to regain the starter’s role. Bennett kept it, won a national title and now is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

It’s true that Bennett’s statistics don’t measure up to the other three finalists or two quarterbacks who didn’t make the cut: Hooker and last year’s winner, Alabama’s Bryce Young. Bennett ranks last among those six in quarterback rating and touchdowns. He ranks fifth in yards per attempt and is tied with Stroud for the most interceptions.

Those numbers need context, though.

First, look at Bennett’s production when facing the toughest opponents. Against opponents ranked in the final poll, Bennett is second nationally in yards per attempt (10.2) and completion percentage (73.1) per cfbstats.com. He’s tied for first with 13 touchdowns against only two interceptions vs. ranked teams. Bennett’s play is a big reason why the Bulldogs beat Tennessee, LSU, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Oregon.

Also, consider that Bennett has had an outstanding season despite not throwing to a star at wide receiver. Williams, Stroud, Duggan and Hooker all play with receivers who are projected to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Georgia’s Ladd McConkey might reach that level eventually. He’s not there yet.

Nearly every team that’s played for the national championship had an elite wide receiver. Sixteen teams have played in the College Football Playoff title game. Fourteen of them had a wide receiver who went on to be drafted among the top five at their position. The exceptions: Oregon in 2014 and Georgia in 2021.

That’s one reason Bennett’s 2021 run was so impressive. No one seemed to talk much about Georgia’s relative lack of talent at wide receiver. He could end up winning another ring without an elite receiver. Bennett has a great tight end, Brock Bowers, but he had plenty of quiet games this season. Bennett makes Georgia’s offense hum.

Critics might contend that Bennett doesn’t have to do much because Georgia’s defense is so good. Setting aside Bennett’s performances in big games, I’ve never understood that argument. Every QB for recent national champions were on teams that played good defense. That’s still a requirement to contend even as offense explodes. Otherwise, Oklahoma, Oregon and BYU would have more rings.

The Bulldogs have the quarterback to lead them to back-to-back national championships. Bennett is smart and tough. He has a good, accurate arm. He can run. Bennett has had bad games this season, like every good quarterback, but it seems his tough days draw more scrutiny. And he almost always shows up in the big games.

Bennett was great against Michigan and Alabama in last season’s CFP. He was great against the best teams the Bulldogs faced during this year’s undefeated regular season. He was great against LSU in the SEC Championship game Saturday. That’s what you expect from a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

I’m betting that Bennett will keep it up in the Peach Bowl against Ohio State. The last time we saw the Buckeyes, they were getting carved up by Michigan sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy. He’s grown into being a good quarterback. Bennett is better.

These past two years likely will be the high point of Bennett’s time as a football player. The starting quarterbacks for the past five national champions were Bennett, Mac Jones (Alabama), Joe Burrow (LSU), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) and Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama). One of those is not like the others when it comes to perceived NFL potential.

Burrow and Lawrence were No. 1 overall picks in their drafts. Tagovailoa was fifth, Jones 15th and Hurts 53rd. Bennett likely will be selected in the later rounds. The NFL’s risk-averse talent evaluators aren’t going to use a high draft pick on a 25-year-old QB who’s a shade short of 6 feet tall.

That’s OK. Bennett has won one national championship for Georgia and is on track for another. Bennett also is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. He deserves the recognition.