INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Angelo Pizzo knows a thing or two about great underdog stories. He wrote the screenplays for “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” two of the most iconic sports films of all time. He knows a good storyline.
“He’s like Rudy with more talent — a lot more talent,” Pizzo said. “It takes a special person. It takes a special belief. You have to kind of work through all the logic that says, ‘You’re not that. Go play for Georgia State, not Georgia.’ He had this belief and saw things and felt things that no one else did.”
On Monday night, about 11 miles from Hollywood, Bennett put the finishing touches on a storied college career that not even Pizzo could have written. The former walk-on, who left Georgia for a year to play at a junior college and then came back when the team needed him, led the No. 1 Bulldogs to a 65-7 victory over No. 3 TCU in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T at SoFi Stadium.
Georgia became the fifth team to finish 15-0 and the first to repeat as national champions in the CFP era. They are just the fourth to go back-to-back since 1990; Nebraska (1994-95), USC (2003-04) and Alabama (2011-12) were the others.
Bennett, 25, became only the eighth quarterback in the AP poll era to lead his team to back-to-back national titles.
Bennett’s final act was his opus. He completed 18 of 25 passes for 304 yards with four touchdowns and ran for two more scores. Bennett tied former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow for most points responsible for in a CFP title game with 36. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he is the only player over the past 25 years to have four passing touchdowns and two rushing scores in a game against a top-five opponent.
“Stetson speaks for himself, the way he leads and prepares,” Smart said. “His mental makeup is such of a quarterback that believes he can make every throw and what he did tonight was truly amazing. Probably had his best game of his career, in my opinion, with some of the checks he made, some of the decisions he made, just really elite.”
No one could have anticipated that Bennett’s curtain call would come with about 13 ½ minutes remaining in the game. With Georgia leading 52-7, coach Kirby Smart called a timeout. Bennett hugged a few of his offensive linemen and tight end Brock Bowers, then walked to the sideline, where he was greeted with another hug from Smart.
During the break, as the Redcoat Marching Band played, Georgia fans saluted Bennett by lighting up their cell phones and waving their arms in unison.
“I told all the guys, ‘What are we doing? Why don’t we have a play?'” Bennett said. “I was, like, they’re letting me walk out of here.”
It was a fitting tribute for a quarterback who started his college career by mimicking Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in bowl practices before playing the Sooners in the 2018 Rose Bowl and ended it as arguably one of two or three most accomplished players in Georgia history.
“Any time there’s a conversation, he’s going to be in the discussion about who is the best player and quarterback in Georgia history,” said Buck Belue, who was the last quarterback before Bennett to lead the Bulldogs to a national title in 1980. “I don’t see anybody else winning back-to-back titles. That’s like a royal flush. Who’s going to top that?”
A year ago, when the Bulldogs had a historically talented defense, which had five starters selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, some critics wondered whether they won their first national title in 41 years in spite of their quarterback. Some Georgia fans, whether they’ll admit it now or not, were ready for Bennett to move on, so younger quarterbacks like Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff would have a chance to play.
On January 12, 2022, two days after throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead Georgia to a 33-18 victory against Alabama in the CFP title game, Bennett walked into Smart’s office and told him he was thinking about coming back.
“I’m trying to decide if I’m going to come back or ride off in the wind,” Bennett told his coach, according to Smart. “I don’t understand everybody’s telling me I should just ride off into the sunset [and] be the legendary quarterback who won a national title. That’s just not who I am I am. I don’t get it. Why should I do that when I have an opportunity to play again? Why don’t we go win it again?”
Smart, who knew the Bulldogs were going to lose 15 players to the NFL, wasn’t as confident as his quarterback. “I’m kind of thinking, ‘Well, that would be nice but we lost 15 draft picks,'” Smart said. “Might not be that easy this time.” But Bennett believed Georgia would be good enough again. “He had full conviction that he wanted to come back and go opposite of the mainstream,” Smart said. “He said, ‘I want to go play. I want to go play football and prove to people this is no fluke. We can do this.’ And he did everything that he said he was going to do.”
This season, it was clear that Georgia wouldn’t have won a second national title without him. He was 7-0 against ranked opponents, throwing 20 touchdowns with only three interceptions. During the regular season, he beat Oregon’s Bo Nix, Florida’s Anthony Richardson, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker and Kentucky’s Will Levis, who are all considered potential NFL quarterbacks.
Bennett threw four touchdowns in the first half of a 50-30 rout of LSU in the SEC championship game. He had two fourth-quarter touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, including the game-winner to Adonai Mitchell with 54 seconds left, to bring Georgia back from a 14-point deficit in a 42-41 victory.
Ironically, it was a walk-on quarterback who got Smart to open up his offense. During Smart’s first couple of seasons as coach of his alma mater, he leaned on what he had learned at Alabama as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs ran the ball and played stout defense.
But when the Bulldogs were struggling to land highly coveted quarterbacks and game-changing wide receivers, Smart changed his philosophy. After the 2019 season, Smart shook up his coaching staff and hired offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who had just been fired by the Cleveland Browns.
“[Smart] wanted a certain amount of structure, a certain amount of NFL experience,” Monken said. “How would you be explosive? Maybe change the narrative. Just that you’re conservative, you don’t want to be explosive. You’ve got to get good skill players, you’ve got to get quarterbacks. How do we do that?” Eventually, Monken and Bennett became the perfect partnership, but it took a while to get there. Bennett only took over the offense after Justin Fields transferred to Ohio State, Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out and USC transfer JT Daniels got hurt.
Together, Monken and Bennett produced two of the most prolific offenses in Georgia history. This season, Bennett became the Bulldogs’ first 4,000-yard passer. In four College Football Playoff contests, he completed 67.8% of his passes for 1,239 yards with 12 touchdowns, one interception and two scoring runs.
“He’s at the top — the very top,” Georgia offensive tackle Broderick Jones said, when asked where Bennett ranks among Bulldogs players. “Stetson has done so much for this program it’s crazy. All the way from giving [the defense] scout looks to playing to throwing game-winning balls. He’s done everything he could at the University of Georgia.”
Georgia receiver Ladd McConkey agreed.
“I think he goes down as the top,” McConkey said. “He won two national championships, back-to-back. He showed up in every way possible and has done so much for this program. I think he should go out on top.”
Less than an hour after confetti stopped falling from the roof of SoFi Stadium, Smart was asked, of all things, about Bennett’s ineligibility for the College Football Hall of Fame. Since he was never named an All-American, he won’t receive the sport’s highest post-career honor. He was 29-3 as a starter. He was named the offensive MVP of two CFP semifinals and two CFP national championships.
“I don’t know about the prerequisites,” Smart said. “I know he’s got GOAT status in Athens, Georgia, forever.”
When Smart walked into his office at SoFi Stadium after Monday night’s game, he found his 10-year-old son, Andrew. Thinking somebody had hurt his feelings, Smart asked him, “Why are you crying? You’re going to ruin my moment.”
“Stetson is leaving,” Smart’s son said. “He’s going to go.”
“He’s 25 years old,” Smart said. “He’s got to go. He’s got to leave.”
And now the Bulldogs will have to try to win another national championship without him.