Stetson Bennett is a good passer and moxie athlete, but compared to the rest of the Georgia and Alabama starters, he seems like something a little kid could hold onto in their sleep. Most quarterbacks are fired; Bennett is thrown. But most quarterbacks don’t win national championships for their home state team, and Bennett just won.
Georgia did, finally, but ultimately it’s all that matters. The Bulldogs won their first national title since 1980, and while there were long periods of uncertainty in their 33-18 victory over Alabama, in the end it was obvious that Georgia was the most worthy team. Alabama coach Nick Saban said it himself: Georgia was the most consistent team all season.
“They deserve it,” Saban said. “They played very well all year.”
This was the vision that Kirby Smart brought to Athens when he took over his alma mater in 2016. He would combine everything he learned with Saban in Alabama with everything he believed Georgia should be.
In the 41 years since Georgia’s last title, college football has become less regionalized and more professionalized. Smart has mastered the fast-paced and sophisticated modern recruiting game, but he’s still a Georgia son and has retained his sense of place. He said that after beating Alabama, when he stepped out of his hotel elevator on the 15th floor this week, he saw legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley sitting on a bench in the hallway.
“God put it there,” Smart said.
Smart didn’t say why God made Tua Tagovailoa complete that pass in second and 26 a few years ago. But that doesn’t matter. This is the kind of thing you can say when you win the national championship at your alma mater.
Smart built a dominant defense that is just as impressive as the ones we usually see at Saban. Alabama ran the ball 28 times in this game … for 30 yards. Running back Brian Robinson Jr., who was able to get four yards against a pride of lions, averaged 3.1 against Georgia.
The last significant play of the game summed up the Smart era. Alabama was driving for a possible tying touchdown (Tide would have had to go for two) when Kelee Ringo intercepted a pass from Bryce Young. Ringo returned it 79 yards for the score, turning a tense game into a double-digit victory. All those years of wondering if Georgia would ever beat Alabama and win a national title, and suddenly it all happened at once.
If 1980 felt like a hundred lifetimes ago to Georgia fans… well, in a way it was. College football has changed more dramatically than any other sport at that time. And yet Georgia managed to win this title with an anachronism by taking snapshots.
In a field filled with future NFL starters, Bennett somehow made the biggest play of the game for both teams. The first threatened to define it. The second one will, whenever a Bulldogs fan sees him walking down a Georgia street.
This is how you no Beat Alabama: Trying to throw a pass that has no chance of landing in a happy spot, groping as you throw it and watching it bounce off and land in the opposing team’s hands. Brian Branch of The Crimson Tide didn’t seem to realize it was a pass at all; he happened to make the biggest play in the game up to that point, as an agent who thought he was defusing a dummy bomb to practice only to find out it was real.
And that’s how you do Beat Alabama: After Tide turns your mistake into a touchdown and an 18-13 lead, you lead your team on two consecutive touchdown series. Bennett completed all four of his official passes in those drives, for 83 yards and two perfect touchdowns: a magnificent 49-yard pass to Adonai Mitchell, to take the lead, and a 15-yard pass to Brock Bowers to add him. Bennett also received penalties for pass interference on two other occasions.
“We weren’t going to let a turnover like that cost us a national championship,” Bennett said later. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. It wasn’t going to be the reason we lost tonight.”
Georgia avenged a series of painful losses to Tide, most recently in the SEC championship game in December. For the past several years, as Kirby Smart recruited five-star recruits and won games by the ton, a national title seemed inevitable most days and impossible every time Georgia played Alabama. Nick Saban beats all of his former assistants, and Smart was no exception.
Was the tide in the Bulldogs’ heads? It’s easy to say no now. But with every Alabama win, it sure looked like it. In December, Georgia seemed to have false confidence; When Alabama looked, wow, Alabama, Georgia looked stunned. In the first half of this title game, Georgia committed too many penalties and made too many mistakes, and Saban seemed happy to win a game straight out of an older generation – all defense and field position and intelligence.
The talent on the field was really impressive. These weren’t just the top two college football teams this year, but they were so far ahead of the field that No. 3 really isn’t worth debating. Defensive fronts hit like NFL teams. Alabama seemed more comfortable with this style.
Then Bennett made that disastrous rotation that ended up in the hands of Branch. This was the time for Georgia to stop reeling or just pass on her therapy bills to Alabama. Bennett made sure it ended like he always dreamed of. He finished with 17 completions on 26 attempts for 224 yards, and who cares? He didn’t go to Indianapolis to accumulate statistics.
Bennett, a former passenger who thinks economy class middle seats are roomy, is not Bryce Young. Throughout the year, that was the criticism. Now is the compliment. A game that seemed, for much of the night, that it would expose Bennett, finally validated it. He always believed that his combination of guts, intelligence, and skill was enough. He doesn’t have to say it anymore. He just proved it.
Young made some spectacular plays, including a couple of dynamic throws that probably should have been touchdown passes, but they missed. He will join former Alabama quarterbacks Mac Jones, Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts as NFL starters one day. But one of the beauties of college football has always been that it’s not just a factory that produces NFL players. There’s always been room for guys like Stetson Bennett. It was refreshing to see that there still is.
More college football coverage:
• Top 25 too early for 2022 season
• Kirby, Nick and the inside story of Smart vs. Saban
• Bennett cries tears of joy over Georgia Seals title
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.