INDIANAPOLIS — Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship could not have started much worse for Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett.
The middle was rough, too, with a disastrous fumble that seemed like yet another calamity in a star-crossed program’s plight.
But the end? It was gritty, remarkable and, ultimately, unquestionably, legendary.
Bennett rebounded from his early hiccups to throw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes and lead the No. 3 Bulldogs to a 33-18 win over No. 1 Alabama that ended Georgia’s mind-boggling 41-year national championship drought.
“I can’t describe it,” Bennett said.
It’s almost indescribable, how everything played out in front of a Georgia-leaning crowd of 68,311 at Lucas Oil Stadium and how everything played out over the last four decades for the Bulldogs. Georgia (14-1) never lost its blue-blood status. The state population boomed, pushing it into the upper recruiting tier with Florida, Texas and California.
Yet the Bulldogs could not win it all. They sandwiched 16 top-10 finishes, 31 first-round picks and countless blue-chip recruits into a 14,984-day stretch of futility. They came up 5 yards short in the 2012 SEC championship. They lost on a second-and-26 breakdown in the national title game four years ago. Their historically great defense collapsed in last month’s SEC title game. And those were just the recent ones that got away against Alabama (13-2).
Georgia tried to dismiss the pressure all week and all season, but it was there. Bennett — a Georgia native from Blackshear — acknowledged as much when he said he couldn’t think about it all, lest the sky-high stakes crush him or any other 20-something.
“I’m not capable of holding that weight on my shoulders,” Bennett said last week.
But he was. Just not immediately.
His first play was a sack. His second was a fumble, when the ball inexplicably slipped from his hands on a scramble. He and the offense took a delay of game, then ended the drive with an incompletion. Coach Kirby Smart put his arm around him on the sideline.
Smart was patient, too, with what happened late in the third quarter. With Georgia clinging to a 13-12 lead, Bennett tried, but failed, to outrun Alabama’s Christian Harris, who hit him just before he could throw it. Alabama corralled the fumble at the Georgia 16 and went ahead five plays later on a touchdown pass from Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young to Cameron Latu.
Smart could have benched Bennett for JT Daniels, the golden-armed former five-star recruit. He didn’t.
The Bulldogs could have let one unfortunate play spiral against their boogeyman, led by Smart’s former boss. They didn’t.
Bennett could have cratered, let one mistake turn into two or three. He didn’t.
“I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost this game,” Bennett said.
Instead, he became one of the biggest reasons why they won it. Bennett’s next three throws, under brilliant play-calling by former Bucs assistant Todd Monken: 18-yard completion, defensive pass interference, 10-yard completion. His fourth was a flawless 40-yard bomb to a leaping Adonai Mitchell in the end zone. It wasn’t just a nice throw. It was a national-championship-worthy throw for a quarterback who was benched 14 months ago in a hapless game against Florida.
Then Bennett kept going. Another defensive pass interference, then a tricky 15-yard pass to star tight end Brock Bowers. An 18-13 deficit became a 26-18 lead.
There were other heroes, too, of course. Defensive lineman Jalen Carter — a former five-star recruit from Apopka — blocked a second-half field goal and blocked for Zamir White on a second-half touchdown. James Cook, the Miami native and younger brother of former Florida State star Dalvin Cook, ripped off a 67-yard rush. Cornerback Kelee Ringo sealed the win with a 79-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute.
But Bennett became the legend. When Georgia was last on this stage four years ago, he was an unheralded walk-on. His biggest accomplishment was simulating Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield on the scout team before their Rose Bowl meeting in the semifinal. He left after that for a year of junior college ball before coming back and climbing his way up the depth chart, past one blue-chip recruit after another.
Then, on the biggest stage of his life, he pushed his hometown program to the stage it hadn’t been on since long before he was born. And after lifting the pride of an entire football-crazed, championship-deprived state on his shoulders, he finally allowed himself to think about the magnitude of everything — from his turbulent career to the 41-year drought.
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