INDIANAPOLIS – You know that commonly-uttered maxim that it’s impossible to win a national championship with a walk-on quarterback? Well, if you have a cat, that is today’s litter. And if not, simply compost the nonsense.
Remember all the breath wasted this college football season debating whether li’l ol’ Stetson Bennett should quarterback the mighty Bulldogs while a five-star arm like JT Daniels rusted on the sideline like forgotten army surplus? All that was downgraded to piffle and tripe late Monday here in the biggest barn in the Midwest, which is destined to be spoken of as nothing less than the promised land by Bulldogs fans forever.
Inside Lucas Oil Stadium, the one-time walk-on from the South Georgia mapspeck of Blackshear lead Georgia to a national title paid for in decades of tears and fatalism, engineering a 33-18 victory over Alabama for the Bulldogs first national championship since 1980.
Forty-one years ago, it was a running back from Wrightsville, its population also barely five figures, who was remembered as the everlasting engine to a title. Herschel Walker and Stetson Bennett today walk the same historical plane. Never have so many owed so much to places of so few.
Afterward, confetti raining down upon the victors and the Georgia flock that had dominated the stands bellowed on, Bennett declared from the field, “These are the greatest fans in the world. This is the greatest team in the world. I love this place.” Love of place has always been at the heart of his story, and now it is a love fully requited.
This night Bennett was a single sword slaying two dragons: Georgia’s almost pathological inability to get past Nick Saban’s dynastic Crimson Tide (0-for-7 against it until Monday). And the nagging thought that maybe lifetimes would pass before Georgia would win another of those type of victories that get tattooed on stadium walls and passed through generations like a family heirloom.
Being the good soldier he is, Bennett would credit everyone else around him, especially a defense that continually denied Alabama the endzone long enough for the Georgia offense to get a few things right. He would look back at the fourth-quarter play that was ruled his fumble and not quibble with the call but rather determine that, “I was not going to be the reason we lost that game.”
From that moment, Bennett was the chief among multiple reasons the Bulldogs won that game. Trailing 18-13 after Bama cashed in the recovered fumble on the Georgia 16-yard line for a touchdown, Georgia would not throw often over the game’s final 10 minutes. But when Bennett did fling, he was perfect. He threw six passes, completed four passes, and the other two were big gains after the Tide was flagged for interference. Half of his completions were for touchdowns, the most meaningful one the 40-yard strike to Adonai Mitchell barely three minutes after the egregious fumble.
Bennett finished the night 17 of 26 for 224 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
As he acknowledged other stories on his team worthy of script treatment, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was impelled to say of Bennett, “Five years ago he was delivering passes like Baker Mayfield against the scout team (prior to Georgia’s Rose Bowl appearance against Oklahoma). There’s a lot of guys that saw him on that scout team make plays with his feet, his arm whip and decision making, and we were very impressed.
“But again, to think that it would come this far from that National Championship he was a part of there (a Georgia loss to Alabama, of course) to this one, man, what a story.”
To call Bennett a walk-on at this point is a bit like trying to portray Secretariat as a former plow horse. But the truth is he originally came to the Bulldog as a walk-on determined to play at the university that was his first love. He crapped out on that occasion, went off to subdued junior college success before coming back to Athens with a scholarship in hand just in time to be a scout quarterback. Now Baker Mayfield may envy him.
Bennett began the 2021 season as a backup to the highly hyped Daniels. But when Daniels was hurt in the second game, Bennett took over and wouldn’t give back the job. Hence the popular fan debate between the two quarterbacks that was the background static for the last three months. It grew all the louder after Bennett’s two interceptions against Alabama abetted the Tide’s SEC Championship victory in December.
But talk about a complete rewrite of that scene: Last month it was Bennett throwing a costly pick-six interception in a big game. Monday he was sobbing with happiness on the sidelines as Georgia’s Kelee Ringo returned an interception for a touchdown against Alabama with less than a minute to go, locking down a championship.
“The tears afterwards, that just hit me. I hadn’t cried in, I don’t know, years, but that just came over me,” Bennett said. “When you put as much time as we do into this thing, blood, sweat, tears, it means something.”
He talked about wanting nothing more in the aftermath of this epochal night than to go hug his family. Others may have doubted, but they never did. “They’re the ones who have been in my corner the entire time, always supported me.”
While Smart reminded his players about the place in lore they had just assumed. “I told the guys in the locker room, just take a picture of this, because I think back to the ‘80 championship picture and seeing all those players and all these people that have reached out and said things,” he said. “Our guys have accomplished that, something special, and as they say, they’ve become legendary.”
The format’s changed a bit since 1980. Rather than one bowl game leading to a title, now there is a two-tier playoff. In both the semifinal and final, it was a former walk-on who was named the most valuable offensive player. That is the stuff of legend.