Miami Gardens, Fla.—For Stetson Bennett IV and the Georgia Bulldogs it was sweet, sweet redemption.
But it wasn’t complete redemption. For at chance at that they will have to wait.
Georgia, a team that was ranked No. 1 most of the season that was beginning to be doubted by others and perhaps even doubting itself, scored on its first five possessions against Michigan in Friday night’s CFP semifinal in the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs, just a 7 ½ favorite, went on win 34-11 at Hard Rock Stadium.
Georgia (13-1) now advances to the Jan. 10 national championship game against No. 1 Alabama (13-1) which easily handled No. 4 Cincinnati 27-6 in Friday’s other semifinal in the Cotton Bowl.
So now what? For second time since the 2017 season, there will be two SEC teams in the national championship game. So the conference where It Just Means More will be guaranteed its 12th national title since 2006.
With 7:06 left the crowd of 66,839, at least the ones wearing red, chanted: “SEC! SEC! SEC!”
“I really proud of our team and our entire organization,” said head coach Kirby Smart. “I never had any questions about this team. The bounce back? We’ve been doing it all year.”
You could say that Alabama and Georgia have a little history.
Alabama won the 2018 national championship game 26-23 on a walk-off touchdown pass by Tua Tagovailoa in overtime.
In that same span Georgia and Alabama have met twice more (2018, 2021) with the SEC championship at stake. Nick Saban and Alabama won both of those games. So the story line for this epic meeting will be this:
With Saban going for his eighth national championship, Alabama will surely be favored in the game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
For Georgia it will be another chance for Coach Kirby Smart to finally check the only remaining box on his otherwise brilliant coaching resume.
Smart, the favorite son of Georgia, was brought home in 2016 to put the Bulldogs in position to challenge the Saban dynasty at Alabama. He has won 45 games, played in four SEC championship games, and will be making his second appearance in the national championship game.
He has elevated Georgia to a recruiting powerhouse, going step by step with Saban, considered one of the greatest recruiters of his generation.
In his short time at Georgia Smart, an All-SEC player for the Bulldogs, has done everything a coach could be realistically asked to do.
Everything except beat Nick Saban and win Georgia’s first national championship since 1980, Herschel Walker’s first season with the Bulldogs. Herschel Walker is now 56 years old and running for the U.S. Senate.
It has not gone unnoticed by the Georgia faithful that Alabama, Florida, Auburn, LSU, and Tennessee have won national championships since Georgia last held the hardware.
It has been a long wait and there is a narrative, perhaps unfairly, that Smart lacks whatever killer gene necessary to put Saban away in a game of the highest consequence.
That, ladies and gentlemen is what’s on the line on Jan. 10.
But that discussion can wait until later. Friday night, as the final hours of 2021 began to tick down, Georgia simply dominated the Big Ten champions. The only possessions where the Bulldogs failed to score in the first half came right before halftime when Smart elected to run out the clock instead of trying to score one more time.
Trailing 27-3, Michigan tried to fashion a scoring drive on the first possession of the second half. But then Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara threw an interception in the Georgia end zone by Derion Kendrick, his second pick of the night. Kendrick, the transfer from Clemson, was named the game’s Most Outstanding defensive player.
That would basically snuff out any hope that Michigan had of a comeback. The Wolverines were dreaming of their first national championship since 1997. Jim Harbaugh will have to dream a little longer.
Bennett was brilliant in the first half completing 16 of 22 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, including a 57-yard strike for a score to Jermain Burton. He capped his night off with a 39-yard touchdown pass to James Cook to give Georgia a 34-3 lead with 11:11 left. He finished the night with 307 yards passing and three touchdowns. He was named the game’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player.
“This is game about how well you play,” said Bennett. “I wasn’t trying to make a statement. That’s my goal every week.”
Still, here have been serious writings and discussions which, despite his record of 13-3 as the Georgia starter, have raised the question of whether or not Georgia can actually beat an alite team like Alabama with Bennett as its leader. As good as Bennett was Friday night, that hot topic will be raised again in the days before Jan. 10.
Let the debate begin.