ATLANTA – Stetson Bennett wouldn't allow himself to bask so long in the celebration following last season's national championship that it would be more difficult to make a run at a repeat title this year.
Bennett, who began his career at Georgia as a walk-on, has had many critics and coaches — even on his own team — tell him what he can't do. He refused to be distracted by the praise that came with his lead role on the Bulldogs' first national championship since 1980 last season.
Now Bennett has No. 1 Georgia (13-0) one win away from a shot at the school's first back-to-back titles. The Bulldogs will play No. 4 Ohio State (11-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinal in Saturday night's Peach Bowl.
No team has won consecutive championships in the first eight years of the CFP. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron won back-to-back BCS national championships in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Before that, the last quarterback to win two straight titles was Nebraska's Tommie Frazier in 1994-95.
Bennett said he understands why back-to-back titles are so rare.
“Yeah man, these pats on the back feel good, you know?” Bennett said Wednesday. “And then you start to believe what they’ve told you, and it’s never true. Good or bad, it’s never true. And then you literally forget how you did it and it’s the craziest thing in the world. Because you want to but you took so much time off that you’ve forgotten how to do the work.”
Bennett, all of 5-feet-11 and 190 pounds, knew he couldn't afford to stop working. There are too many four- and five-star quarterbacks waiting for an opportunity — on the Georgia depth chart or in the transfer portal.
“I was not a big, prized recruit or anything like that and I didn’t look like one and there was really no threat of me becoming one, if we’re being frank,” Bennett said.
Bennett walked on at Georgia in 2017, transferred to Jones College in Ellisville, Mississippi, in 2018 and then returned to Georgia more determined than ever, even if it meant working on the scout team.
He now is 27-3 as a starter and has consistently flourished in Georgia's biggest games, disproving his label as a game manager on a run-first offense.
Bennett threw a combined nine touchdown passes with no interceptions in last season's CFP wins over Michigan and Alabama and in a 50-30 win over LSU in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 3. He was named offensive MVP in all three games.
Georgia center Sedrick Van Pran says Bennett's success on the game's biggest stages is easy to understand.
“I think it’s the same thing that I see every game,” Van Pran said. “It’s just his preparation. ... He’s a guy who just works really hard. I think that may come from him being an underdog and things like that.”
Bennett completed 23 of 29 passes for 274 yards and four touchdowns in the win over LSU.
“Obviously he has shown up big,” said Georgia tight end Brock Bowers. “That comes through all the preparation that we do. His personality just shows up in these bigger games and being able to perform on the biggest stages.”
Bennett has tied Eric Zeier's school record with 269 completions this season while passing for 3,425 yards and 20 touchdowns. Those numbers and Bennett's big-game success earned him a surprise spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“It’s a great honor for his resiliency,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “I mean, to be named one of the four finalists, I don’t know anybody could have written a script with what he’s done in terms of start to finish with trials, tribulations, ups and downs, highs and lows, throughout his career. To have that be near the end of it is pretty special.”
Bennett isn't linked with the other Heisman finalists, including Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, on NFL draft projections. Even so, Ohio State coach Ryan Day says Bennett “is the one that gets it all going” for Georgia’s offense.
“And certainly they have talent across the board,” Day said. “Their offensive line is big, both tight ends are very, very talented, running backs are very good, receivers are very good. But it’s the quarterback that makes it all go and he’s played unbelievable.”
Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken are grateful Bennett was determined to play for Georgia.
“All we did was try to bury him for the couple of years he was here, and all he did was continue to fight and compete and (he) had every reason to say, you know what, I’m gone in today’s day and age in the portal and guys leaving,” Monken said. “He didn’t do that. ... He wanted to be the quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs.”
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