Stetson Bennett, Georgia set new standard in College Football Playoff

Stetson Bennett, Georgia set new standard in College Football Playoff

With TCU long gone and the postgame press conference over, Stetson Bennett was standing in an end zone of SoFi Stadium waiting to do a live interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. Still in uniform, he had a Coca-Cola in hand – with the promise of harder things to come. A family friend had brought a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon back on the road trip in hopes of recreating last year’s national championship celebration.

The quiet moment provided an opportunity to ask the Georgia quarterback one last question.

I wanted to know about a crooked index finger hand signal I saw him give while posing for a postgame photo taken by Bulldogs sports communications staffer Leland Barrow, who has spent the better part of two years the latter shepherding Bennett through an endless series of interviews. fame grew. The finger symbol was for a Georgia honor society, Bennett explained, then asked for my notepad.

On it, Bennett wrote: “SVNV.” The signal represented those initials, he explained cryptically, offering nothing more as he left to slip on his headset for his interview.

Upon further investigation, Bennett initialed a Latin quote from the ancient Roman poet Virgil: “Sic vos non vobis.” Roughly translated: “This is how we work, but not for ourselves.”

If you want an accurate summary of Cinderella’s final story, this phrase may apply. Bennett’s work at Georgia raised many others: millions of Bulldogs fans who thirsted for a national title for 41 years and ended up with two of them; a locker room full of incredibly talented teammates who all sacrificed for each other; a coach who at first doubted Bennett could play at this level, then became a Stetson believer; his parents, both Georgia graduates and rabid fans, who nurtured their oldest son’s childhood hope to play for the Dawgs. The guy nicknamed “The Mailman” was given to many people.

And, yes, Bennett’s work can be an inspiration to countless young people who have been told they weren’t good enough to fulfill their lofty goals, athletics or elsewhere. It’s the stuff of screenplays, an athlete who goes from doubt to all-star, but it’s all real. Bennett followed the dream and it wouldn’t be denied—he kept working, kept an iron faith … and won.

“If you’re an under-recruited guy, soak it up, but you still have to be the best,” Bennett said. “Go, be a miscreant out there. Be a dog. You should. But hopefully in 15 years, there will be a kid who is becoming a stud and remembers watching us play.”

Bennett threw two passes and ran for two scores, all in the first half of Monday’s title game.

Bad Dog Stetson Bennett IV ends his endless six-year college career with two national championships and offensive MVP honors from not one, not two, not three, but four College Football Playoff games over two seasons. last. Bennett’s numbers from those wins against Michigan, Alabama, Ohio State and TCU: 78 of 115 for 1,239 yards, 12 touchdowns and an interception. That’s a passer efficiency rating of 191.02, which by itself would have easily led the nation this season.

The bigger the stakes, the heavier the pressure, the better he played. And as coach Kirby Smart declared after this 65–7 rout of TCU—the biggest rout in CFP or BCS history—it was his best performance.

Bennett shredded the Horned Frogs for 304 passing yards and four touchdowns on just 25 attempts, completing 18 of them. He led Georgia to points on the game’s first six possessions, effectively sealing the game well before halftime. Combine that with three straight field goals to pull off the Peach Bowl semifinal win against Ohio State, and we saw a quarterback operating at the top of his game.

“Some of the checks [audibles] he made, some of the decisions he made, just elite,” Smart said. “He saw the max blitz and beat the max blitz and ran for the first down on one of the biggest plays in the game, which takes a phenomenal athlete. He knew what was going on and set the boy up. He made a change of defense and made an elite shot. He planned a run, led a run in the middle, which nobody runs.

“And when you have a quarterback that can make defenses and control things and know what the defense is doing but still beat you with your feet, you have a top-level quarterback. And people have been sleeping in Stetson Bennetts for a long time. He needs an opportunity to play for a long time at the next level.”

Smart and Georgia became the first program to win back-to-back national titles under the CFP format.

This is the next (and final) frontier – Bennett and the NFL. If he thought he had doubters at the collegiate level, well, here comes another round of them. There will be months of debate.

Some scouts believe he will be drafted and have a strong chance to make the roster despite his size (he’s shorter than the listed 5’11”). what we’ve seen of him as he played 29–3 as a starter, he doesn’t need to improve that much.

Bennett could have tried his hand at the NFL last year, of course, but chose to return. Last January, he walked into Smart’s office and told him of his plan. Many people did not see the wisdom in this, suspecting that he was ruining a perfect ending. Can Georgia repeat after sending a flotilla of talent to the pros?

“[Bennett said to me,] “Everybody tells me I should ride off into the sunset, be the legendary quarterback that won a national title,” Smart recalled. “He says: “I don’t understand. Why should I do this when I have a chance to play again? Why don’t we go win it back?’

“And I’m thinking, Well, that would be great, but we lost 15 draft picks. It might not be so easy this time. He said, ‘I want to go play. I want to go play football and show people that this is not a coincidence. We can do this.”

To do so, Bennett and his teammates had to undergo the “Kirby Smart grind.” Which never regrets.

The Dawgs will take a 17-game winning streak and a 29–1 record into their final 30 games in 2023.

In late June, Georgia football players walked around Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall wearing T-shirts that read, “Nobody cares.” Not the friendliest of words, but there was a point behind Smart’s mantra: Nobody wants to hear excuses for not performing, and nobody is going to give the Bulldogs anything easy like the defending national champions.

Work harder.

Later that afternoon, the Bulldogs went through a sharp situational scrimmage and then sweated through a grueling team practice. They were a wonderful collection of athletes, big and fast, and they were serious about honing their craft. A long Fourth of July weekend beckoned, and in a few weeks the preseason would begin in earnest, but there was no relief on this day off.

There is no relief for anything in Georgia.

“If you really like it,” Smart said months later, “then you’ll fit right in.”

Here’s the hard reality for the rest of college football: The Bulldogs own the sport now. They capped an all-time great season with an all-time touchdown—perhaps the single worst in championship football history was the Chicago Bears beating Washington 73–0 in the 1940 NFL title game.

The College Football Playoff championship game was a frenzy as the Hornets’ fairytale season crashed and burned at the feet of a brutal opponent. This was a complete mismatch everywhere – the line of scrimmage, the backfield, the perimeter, the coaches on the sideline. The Frogs became Georgia’s 15th victim in an undefeated season, and only two of those 15 games were close: the comeback at Missouri in October and the fourth-quarter rally in the Peach Bowl semifinal against Ohio State.

In the end, a third big playoff game was asking too much. TCU’s upset of Michigan and the Bulldogs’ one-point win against the Buckeyes were exciting theater, but the bottom line is this: Georgia’s A game is a mile ahead of everyone else’s. The Bulldogs didn’t play well against Ohio State and said the same thing afterward — over and over — but they still won. Sluggish TCU was treated to Georgia’s comeback performance and was overwhelmed from the start.

The score was 38–7 at halftime and 52–7 after three quarters, which allowed Smart to call a timeout with 13:25 left to receive Bennett to a standing ovation.

The Bulldogs’ defense didn’t give TCU much breathing room, limiting the Frogs to just 188 yards on 51 carries.

The list of those confused by this result includes the Buckeyes, who were within inches and seconds of dethroning the Bulldogs; Alabama, which was left out of the Playoff (rightfully so) after losses to LSU and Tennessee; and Michigan, which went all over itself in the Fiesta Bowl loss to TCU. The Frogs, bless their brave souls, were all dusted off after so many close and dramatic victories in their 13–2 season.

But amid the criticism this game is sure to attract, don’t say college football has a playoff problem. There is a problem with Georgia. Expand it to 12 and welcome all the improvements it will bring – there will be a lot of excitement and drawing. But if or until the Bulldogs bounce back, those kinds of results can keep coming.

The first repeat champion since Alabama (2011 and ’12) looks a lot like those Nick Saban-led teams that had Smart in the defensive coordinator role. The Crimson Tide were simply much better than the competition back then, and Georgia is that team now. They can soak up big-game drama with ruthless efficiency, as they did when they pounded Oregon, Tennessee and LSU and stormed the Southeastern Conference.

The Dawgs dynasty will take a 17-game winning streak and a 29–1 record into their final 30 games in 2023. Replacing Bennett will be a tall order, but the talent pipeline never ends in Athens. Among those returning next season who made big plays against TCU: tight end Brock Bowers (seven catches for 152 yards and a touchdown); wide receiver Ladd McConkey (five catches for 88 yards and two TDs); defensive back Javon Bullard (two interceptions); and linebacker Bear Alexander (one sack). They are all students or freshmen.

“We’re going to have a lot of guys coming back,” Smart said. “We’re going to lose some really talented guys, maybe some young guys. But the disease that creeps into your program is called right. I have seen it first hand.

“If you can beat him with leadership, then you can stay hungry. And we have a saying in our country: We eat from the floor. And if you’re willing to eat off the floor, you can be special.”

Georgia is the first repeat champion since Alabama in 2011 and ’12.

As celebratory cigar smoke choked the air in Georgia’s locker room, Smart walked into his office and was greeted by an inconvenient sight: His youngest child, 10-year-old Andrew, was bawling his eyes out.

“Why are you crying?” The smart one asked him. “You’re ruining my moment.”

“Stetson is leaving,” was Andrew’s reply.

“He’s 25,” Smart replied. “He has to go.”

Nothing lasts forever, not even Stetson Bennett’s college football career. But it lasted long enough for a complete immersion in glory and joy. His hard work wasn’t just for himself – he lifted his home state and the school of his dreams to the highest heights football has ever known.

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