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Stetson Bennett Silences the Skeptics as Georgia Finally Vanquishes Alabama

The quarterback rebounded from disaster and a dominant defense did the rest as the Bulldogs, at last, won the elusive big one.

Stetson Bennett is a pretty good passer and athlete with moxie, but compared to the rest of the starters for Georgia and Alabama, he looks like something a toddler might cling to as she sleeps. Most quarterbacks get sacked; Bennett gets flung. But most quarterbacks don’t win national championships for their home-state team, and Bennett just did.

Georgia did it, finally, but finally is all that matters. The Bulldogs won their first national title since 1980, and while there were long stretches of uncertainty in their 33–18 victory over Alabama, by 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.

“T​hey deserve it,” Saban said. “They played great all year.”

Kirby Smart lifts his arms after Georgia's title

Smart finally beat Saban, his old boss.

This was the vision Kirby Smart brought to Athens when he took over his alma mater in 2016. He would blend everything he learned under Saban at Alabama with everything he believed Georgia should be.

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In the 41 years since Georgia’s last title, college football became less regionalized and more professionalized. Smart has mastered the sophisticated and whirlwind modern recruiting game, but he remains a son of Georgia and has retained his sense of place. He said after beating Alabama that when he got 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 him there," Smart said.

Why God had Tua Tagovailoa complete that pass on second-and-26 a few years ago, Smart did not say. But never mind that. 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 every bit as impressive as the ones we usually see from Saban. Alabama ran the ball 28 times in this game … for 30 yards. Lead back Brian Robinson Jr., who could get four yards against a pride of lions, averaged 3.1 against Georgia.

The last meaningful play of the game summed up the Smart era. Alabama was driving for a potential tying touchdown (the Tide would have had to go for two) when Kelee Ringo intercepted a Bryce Young pass. Ringo returned it 79 yards for the score, turning a tense game into a double-digit win. All those years of wondering if Georgia would ever beat Alabama and win a national title, and suddenly it happened all at once.

If 1980 felt like a hundred lifetimes ago to Georgia fans … well, it kind of was. College football has changed more dramatically than just about any other sport in that time. And yet, Georgia managed to win this title with an anachronism taking snaps. 

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On a field full of future NFL starters, Bennett somehow made the biggest play of the game for both teams. The first threatened to define him. The second one will, every time a Bulldogs fan sees him walking down a Georgia street.

This is how you don’t beat Alabama: By trying to chuck a pass that has no chance of landing in a happy place, fumbling as you toss it, and watching it bounce and land in the hands of the opposing team. The Crimson Tide’s Brian Branch didn’t seem to realize it was a pass at all; he casually made the biggest play of the game to that point, like an agent who thought he was defusing a fake bomb for practice only to discover it was a real one.

And this is how you do beat Alabama: After the Tide turn your mistake into a touchdown and an 18–13 lead, you take your team on two straight touchdown drives. Bennett completed all four of his official passes on those drives, for 83 yards and two perfect touchdowns: a gorgeous 49-yarder to Adonai Mitchell, to take the lead, and a 15-yarder to Brock Bowers to add to it. Bennett also drew pass interference penalties two other times.

"We weren’t going to let a turnover like that from costing us a national championship,” Bennett said afterward. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost tonight."

Georgia QB Stetson Bennett

Bennett takes in the scene as Georgia neared a title.

Georgia avenged a slew of painful losses to the Tide—most recently in December’s SEC championship game. For the last few years, as Kirby Smart reeled in five-star recruits and won games by the bunch, a national title seemed inevitable on most days and impossible whenever Georgia played Alabama. Nick Saban famously beats all of his old assistants, and Smart was no exception.

Were 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 looked like it was riding false confidence; when Alabama looked like—surprise!—Alabama, Georgia seemed stunned. In the first half of this title game, Georgia committed too many penalties and made too many mistakes, and Saban looked like he would be happy winning a game straight out of a previous generation: All defense and field position and smarts.

The talent on the field was truly breathtaking. These were not just the two best teams in college football this year, they were so far ahead of the field that No. 3 isn’t really worth debating. The defensive fronts hit like NFL teams. Alabama seemed more comfortable with this style.

Then Bennett committed that disastrous turnover that ended in Branch’s hands. This was the moment for Georgia to either stop wobbling or just hand Alabama its therapy bills. Bennett made sure it ended the way he always dreamed. He finished with 17 completions in 26 attempts for 224 yards, and who cares? He didn’t go to Indianapolis to rack up stats.

Bennett, a former walk-on who thinks coach-class middle seats are roomy, is no Bryce Young. All year long, that was the criticism. Now it’s the compliment. A game that looked, for much of the night, like it would expose Bennett, ultimately validated him. He always believed 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 were dropped. He is going to join former Alabama quarterbacks Mac Jones, Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts as NFL starters someday. But one of the beauties of college football has always been that it’s not just a factory that produces NFL players. There has always been room for guys like Stetson Bennett. It was refreshing to see that there still is.

More College Football Coverage:

Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2022 Season
 Kirby, Nick and the Inside History of Smart vs. Saban
Bennett Cries Tears of Joy as Georgia Seals Title