ATLANTA — Three quarters into the College Football Playoff National Championship against Alabama in January, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV was struggling in Indianapolis. The former walk-on had completed 11 passes for 136 yards and no touchdowns, and his offense had been as stale as 2-month-old St. Elmo’s shrimp.
Things went from bad to worse early in the fourth quarter. A strip sack from Christian Harris was recovered — by accident — by Brian Branch on the Georgia 27-yard line as Branch was had given up on the play going out of bounds.
“I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost that game,” Bennett said on the stand while accepting the national championship trophy.
Bennett went 3-of-3 passing for 68 yards with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell on the very next drive to give Georgia a 19-18 lead — one that the Bulldogs would never relinquish. A 15-yard touchdown pass to Brock Bowers with 3:33 left gave them an eight-point lead that helped secure their first national title in 41 years and erased a curse against Alabama that has lingered since the 2008 season.
“Sometimes when you’re on the field, you need to lie to yourself,” Bennett told CBS Sports. “You gotta say ‘I don’t have to be David.’ Maybe it’s a lie and maybe you just believe. Whenever you’re out of there and you’re working on yourself, you gotta look in the mirror and say ‘where do I suck’?” You gotta be a harsh critic.”
That signaled a time for growth for Bennett, who chose a return to Athens rather than moving on to the next step after finishing third in the nation in yards per attempt at 10.0. Coach Kirby Smart has been impressed with how he’s handled the responsibility.
“I’m not worried about him buckling under pressure,” Smart told CBS Sports. “I have been pleased with the way he’s worked. When you put somebody in front of your team as the leader, as the starting quarterback, it eases a lot of anxiety with the other players … the skill players and the offensive line. They’re not worried about it.”
Shockingly, for somebody who has a title under his belt, these are uncharted waters for Bennett. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder from Blackshear, Georgia, has never been an unquestioned starting quarterback in the offseason since his high school days. Since then, he went to virtually every single high school camp in a raggedy U.S. Mail hat, walked on at Georgia, transferred to Jones County (Mississippi) Community College when it was clear that things weren’t working out in Athens, and then transferred back to Georgia without any guarantee of playing time.
In fact, that looked like an insurmountable peak to reach for any quarterback — much less an undersized “try-hard” who can’t seem to find his place in the college football landscape. It was that experience that truly prepared Bennett for what has transpired over the last seven months.
“The pressure isn’t greater [this offseason], because he was trying to play,” Smart told CBS Sports. “There is no greater pressure than trying to earn playing time and getting out there. The pressure he felt during the season — when he had somebody breathing down his neck the whole time and he still got to play in some very big games.”
He has a big one coming up. The Bulldogs will begin their title defense in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Pac-12 power Oregon in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in what is one of the most highly anticipated games of Week 1. When that time comes, Bennett will be ready. After all, this offseason has been a breeze compared to what he’s gone through as a high school and college quarterback.