Criticized All Season, 1 Throw Changes Stetson Bennett's Georgia Legacy Forever

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2022

Georgia's Stetson Bennett celebrates after the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Indianapolis. Georgia won 33-18. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS Stetson Bennett is not the champion most Georgia fans wanted. He's certainly not the one they expected.

Entering the 2021 season, the former walk-on quarterback had already taken his shotand it didn't go particularly well. One year earlier, Bennett started five games but faded out of the lineup after miserable days in losses to Alabama and Florida.

In his place, USC transfer JT Daniels put together a stellar four-game stretch to close the season and spark this year's championship hype. The short-lived Bennett era seemed finished.

Fast-forward to September 2021, and a couple of injuries put Daniels on the shelf. Bennett assumed the caretaker role opposite UAB and later Arkansas. But then, Daniels' recovery took longer than anticipated. Soon enough, Bennett's temporary spot shifted to a more permanent, though very tenuous, place as a starter.

All along, everyone from Georgia fans to neutral observers to media proceeded with caution. Multiple turnovers from Bennett against Florida and then Alabama in the SEC Championship game felt awfully familiar in the worst way. Given the level of competition in the College Football Playoff, the potential for a lackluster passing game contributing to a loss might've even seemed inevitable.

The clamors for a now-healthy Daniels, as a result, grew louder and louder.

Defense had carried UGA all season, allowing Bennett to execute low-maintenance game plans. While clearly a competent QB, he rarely encountered a true stress test and left a wanting for more in those infrequent moments. Yet Kirby Smart stood by Bennettdefiantly, evenas the Dawgs' signal-caller.

Could they really win a national title with him, though?

The answer, we now realize, was an emphatic yes. Still, "The Mailman" took his sweet time delivering that resounding answer Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Georgia carried a 13-9 advantage into the closing frame because of their stifling defense and a rushing attack that found its stride in the third quarter. Simultaneously, however, the worst fears of Georgia's offense were on display.

Outside of a terrific deep ball to George Pickens—who made a spectacular diving catch—Bennett had a relatively unimpressive showing. He often looked uncomfortable dealing with Alabama's rushers, struggled on rollouts and managed just 4.2 yards per throw on 21 attempts beyond Pickens' reception.

And then, it appeared a fumble would punctuate Bennett's career in an unforgettably unfortunate manner.

Alabama opened the fourth quarter with a field goal, trimming Georgia's lead to one point. Three snaps later, Bennett lost a fumble that effectively gifted Alabama its go-ahead touchdown.

ESPN @espn

This was ruled a fumble and recovered by Alabama. #NationalChampionship https://t.co/vLodwzPZJP

To some degree, the turnover was merely Bad Luck Bennett. He tried to escape pressure and didn't do anything particularly wrong. On the other hand, the fumblecontroversial though it wasmomentarily justified the skepticism that Bennett could navigate the championship stage.

Now trailing 18-13 with 10:14 remaining in regulation, Georgia entered the reality that so many worried about Bennett: The game was in his hands against an elite defense.

In the face of that pressure, Bennett excelled.

The possession began with an 18-yard completion to Jermaine Burton, who probably would've scored on the next play had Alabama corner Khyree Jackson not wisely dragged down the Georgia receiver. Bennett hit Kenny McIntosh for a 10-yard gain before an eight-yard sack, ironically enough, set up his iconic throw.

Alabama jumped offsides, giving Bennett and the Dawgs a free play. He drifted right and uncorked what would be a game-winning 40-yard touchdown to Adonai Mitchell.

This one throw, if Georgia could just hold on, would transform the memory of Bennett from unsatisfying to legendary.

That's exactly what happenedin a fitting manner, too.

Georgia's defense forced a key three-and-out, and the ground attack took control. Six carries, 32 yards and a pass-interference penalty later, Bennett capped the drive with a 15-yard touchdown to star tight end Brock Bowers for a 26-18 lead.

The clutch possession epitomized how the Dawgs reached the national title: lean on the defense, run the ball and put Bennett in a favorable situation to wrap it up. For good measure, Kelee Ringo iced the victory with a 79-yard pick-six to seal Georgia's first national title since 1980.

Following that fumbleone that could've haunted him and UGA foreverBennett went a perfect 4-of-4 with 83 yards and two vital touchdowns in a 33-18 triumph. After months of uncertainty and questions, he silenced the doubt in legendary fashion.

All thanks to one throw.

Stetson Bennett is not the champion Georgia fans expected. It turns out, though, he was everything they wanted.


Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.