It’s time for Georgia’s Stetson Bennett to get his due

041622 Athens: Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett warms-up before the G - Day game at Sanford Stadium Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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041622 Athens: Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett warms-up before the G - Day game at Sanford Stadium Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

My soft spot for underdogs is well-documented, but that’s not the (only) reason I hope Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett is great in 2022. It’s also because I really believe Bennett is a good quarterback. He proved me right in 2021. I’m wrong plenty, so I appreciate Bennett making me look good. I’d like Bennett to do it again.

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No one seemed to believe coach Kirby Smart when the coach kept insisting that Bennett is a good quarterback. Smart had to be playing Bennett over JT Daniels because he was being too conservative with his QBs again. Then Bennett led the Bulldogs to a national championship over Alabama while being named offensive MVP in the title game. That still wasn’t enough to convince a lot of people that Bennett ranks among the top quarterbacks in the country, a sentiment that’s confirmed by QB rankings for 2022.

Pro Football Focus ranked the top 10 returning quarterbacks. Bennett didn’t make the list or even get a mention. Bennett also isn’t part of USA Today’s top 10. Every quarterback on those lists are better NFL prospects than Bennett. Few of them as accomplished as Bennett as college signal-callers. None of them has won a national championship.

247Sports ranked the top 25 quarterbacks, and Bennett somehow didn’t make the cut. Are we really supposed to believe that Bennett is a worse option that Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei, who had more interceptions than touchdowns as a freshman? Is Texas really in better shape than UGA at QB with Quinn Ewers, who transferred from Ohio State after taking two snaps?

There seems to be a consensus forming that, despite quarterbacking a championship team, Bennett still is just OK. The argument is that he was only an offensive caretaker, and Georgia won big with great defense. Sure, his numbers were good, but coordinator Todd Monken’s system made Bennett look better than he is.

I reject that those arguments. It feels weird that I keep having to say it, but Bennett is a really good quarterback.

Yes, Georgia’s 2021 defense was elite. But Bennett didn’t have a top-tier receiver, unlike his QB peers at top programs (he still doesn’t, which should be a bigger concern than Bennett’s ability). Georgia’s running game was below its very high standards for much of 2021. Bennett usually made the right decisions, which is no small thing. And he made a lot of great plays on the way to winning the national championship, which so many critics said Bennett couldn’t do.

The reluctance to acknowledge Bennett’s talent is a bit perplexing. I get that he doesn’t have the five-star pedigree. I understand that Bennett doesn’t look the part. But it seems that, at some point, all of that should become secondary to Bennett’s performance for the nation’s best team.

Sometimes I feel a bit lonely in my vigorous defense of Bennett. That’s why I was pleased to see ESPN’s David M. Hale join Bennett’s backers in his ranking of QB talent for 2022.

Hale puts three quarterbacks in the “Heisman or bust” Tier 1: C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), Caleb Williams (USC), Bryce Young (Alabama). Three players are in the “Heisman waiting room” Tier 2: Devin Leary (N.C. State), Cameron Rising (Utah), Tyler Van Dyke (Miami).

No surprises there. Stroud, Young and Williams have the shortest odds to win the Heisman Trophy. Van Dyke and Leary are top NFL prospects. Rising was voted first-team All-Pac-12 in 2021, his first season as starter.

Hale’s “2A” tier includes one player, Bennett. He’s above a group of players that Hale calls “pretty good” and just below the Heisman candidates. Finally, here’s someone who agrees with my assessment that Bennett is, in fact, a very good quarterback.

Writes Hale:

“The discussion surrounding Bennett -- even after winning the national championship last year -- has grown more than tiresome. It’s true that Bennett wasn’t a star recruit and doesn’t have an elite arm and probably doesn’t have a serious NFL future. It’s also true that he benefited from a genuinely great defense that routinely put him in position to succeed. But Georgia’s offense was hardly laden with superstars last year, and Bennett’s numbers -- 3,000 yards, 30 touchdowns -- speak for themselves.”

It’s not just the numbers, which were very good. It’s the way Bennett got off the mat each time it seemed he might be done. All the big questions about Bennett should have been answered by his performances in the College Football Playoff. His shining moment was recovering from a bad start against Bama in the championship game to make winning plays. That performance and a great game against Michigan in the semifinal should have elevated Bennett’s national standing for 2022, but it doesn’t seem that’s happened.

PFF, which evaluates every play, notes that Bennett’s grade from a clean pocket was second-best to Ohio State’s Stroud. However, PFF credits much of that success to Monken’s heavy dose of play-action (run fake) passes, screen passes and run-pass options. On pass plays without those actions, Bennett’s percentage of “turnover-worthy” throws ranked 60th among Power 5 quarterbacks, according to PFF.

Those numbers match what we saw from Bennett. He usually made great decisions to keep the ball out of danger. Occasionally, he’d try to fit the ball where it shouldn’t go. Also, it limits Georgia’s offense if Bennett isn’t better on straight drop backs. Every QB has weaknesses, and those are Bennett’s.

Another way to look at that is Bennett has room to grow. Next season will be Bennett’s sixth in college football. He turns 25 years old in October. Normally all of that suggest he’s hit his ceiling. But Bennett has started only 17 games at Georgia. That’s not many. It only seems that way in this era of five-star QBs expected to start as freshmen and be great right away.

Bennett is getting 200-1 odds to win the Heisman. PFF’s Anthony Treash opines that those are “outrageously high” odds given that Bennett is a starter for a CFP contender, but notes that Bennett will have to be more than a “game manager” to win the Heisman. I’m high on Bennett, but I wouldn’t make that bet. He’s not going to win the Heisman.

Bennett doesn’t have to be a Heisman contender for Georgia to repeat as national champion. He just needs to be a very good quarterback again. Do that, and maybe more people will start believing Bennett really is that.