INDIANAPOLIS — Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett is aware of the fine line between the criticism and praise. It’s all part of the job.
Bennett received that criticism after the 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. He heard that praise after leading Georgia to a 34-11 victory against Michigan in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31. There is a frustration that mounts from the things Bennett can’t — or simply won’t — say.
“You’re the hero or the zero,” Bennett told reporters at CFP media availability on Saturday. “I’m glad it was me instead of anybody else because I can handle it because I can just shut it off and tell people to go blah, blah.”
Fill in the blanks on what “blah, blah” might mean ahead of Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game against No. 1 Alabama at Lucas Oil Stadium. Bennett could either be the quarterback who leads No. 3 Georgia to its first national championship since 1980. Or he could be on the losing end of a third start in two seasons against the Crimson Tide.
“Hero or zero,” indeed. The last Georgia quarterback to lead a national championship run was Buck Belue, who is now a radio analyst on Sports Radio 680 in Atlanta. Belue interviewed Bennett ahead of the Orange Bowl matchup against Michigan and gained some interesting insight on the Bulldogs starter.
“I think he’s aware there’s a narrative out there that people want to see (backup quarterback) JT Daniels,” Belue told Sporting News. “As best as I can tell, he’s resilient, a tough dude and determined. Stetson is that. At the end of the day, that’s going to help him for this challenge.”
Bennett erased some doubts with 313 passing yards and three touchdowns against the Wolverines, and teammates have continued to rally around their quarterback. Tackle Jamaryee Salyer, an Atlanta native, said Bennett’s leadership stems from that unapologetic close-to-home personality.
“Country kid, South Georgia kid,” Bennett said. “He’ll be the one kid who comes into the locker room blasting country music. That’s just Stetson. He doesn’t want to be a person that he’s not. He’s never going to be. I think the genuineness in who he is and what he represents draws people to him.”
“He went from Rose Bowl scout-team QB coming in, and he’s just grinding, working,”All-American defensive tackle Jordan Davis added. “He’s an extremely hard worker.”
Bennett, a two-star quarterback in high school, took the long road to this moment. He was a scout-team quarterback when Georgia made a run to the 2018 CFP championship game, also against Alabama. He transferred to Jones College in Ellisville, Miss. before returning to Georgia. He has played the role of starter and backup the last two seasons — an atypical journey for a quarterback playing on the biggest stage.
Bennett chooses his words carefully when talking about those roles within the program. He said “backup” wasn’t the right word to describe his experience as the scout-team quarterback. He’s also “lucky and extremely blessed” to be the starter now. The marquee games against Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and Michigan led to this moment. He also pointed to his late grandfather Buddy Bennett, who went from Stetson University to South Carolina, as a real example of taking the long road.
“He hitchhiked to South Carolina,” Bennett said. “He was the ACC’s leading rusher. Like I said, people make it such a hoopla about my journey. I didn’t freaking hitch-hike anywhere. That’s just what you want to do if you want to play football.”
Of course, the two starts against Alabama in twin-bill 41-24 losses the last two seasons have come into focus. Bennett was 18 of 40 for 269 yards and two touchdowns and three interceptions in 2020. He finished 29 of 48 for 340 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in the SEC championship game. The inbox for what to do this time around is full, too.
What’s the approach now?
“‘I guess, are you going to outsmart yourself?” Bennett said on Monday. “Are you going to overthink everything? No. We are not. Obviously when we go out on the field, would I prefer for Alabama, if they’re going to change anything up, to send us an email this week? I would love that, but I assume they won’t.”
There is that touch of country humor in borrowing a line that Alabama coach Nick Saban has used in the past. Bennett, for all the narratives, appears poised and ready for this moment, a product of the upbringing from his parents Stetson and Denise. The Georgia quarterback appreciates the travel his parents put in to make this opportunity possible, and that helps him walk that line between criticism and praise.
“I don’t want to sound cliché and cheesy, but it does, it inspires me,” Bennett said. “If they can do all that and be successful, then what’s a little bit of football?”