Hayes: Stetson Bennett wrote the greatest underdog tale in college football history. Too bad we missed it
Pull out a map of Georgia. Find Savannah and run your finger south until you hit Brunswick. Then push west on State Road 82 until you reach a speck of a spot called Nahunta, population 1,053 the last time the census checked.
This is the dream, everyone. You make it out of here, in the middle of nowhere, and lead Georgia to its first national championship in 41 years, well, that’s Hollywood script stuff right there.
Only somehow, some way, on the road to the greatest underdog story in modern college football history, the player everyone should’ve been celebrating all along was cast as — can you believe it? — the villain.
“Yeah, of course I heard it all last year. I know what was being said,” Stetson Bennett IV says now, all of 7 months since leading Georgia where no one (maybe even some of his teammates) believed he could. “It was strange, but I couldn’t get caught up in it.”
Until that is, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo returned an interception for a touchdown to seal a National Championship Game victory over Alabama. Then it’s all Bennett could think of, sobbing on the sidelines and living in a moment only a select few enjoy.
Two years of those who doubted and those who dragged him through social media — where there’s no filter and no brakes — because he wasn’t 6-2 and 225 pounds with a live arm and uncanny athletic ability. Because he didn’t have 5 stars and he wasn’t an NFL scout favorite.
Because if anyone were the reason Georgia hadn’t reached its massive potential, it sure as hell had to be the former walk-on from Nahunta, where everything you need to know about the unique journey of Stetson Bennett IV can be told over one of those meal deals at Jerry J’s Family Kitchen. Right off Highway 301, before you run up on the Piggly Wiggly.
“How could anybody blame one player for a team not winning? It makes no sense,” Georgia center Sedrick Van Pran said. “You know how many great quarterbacks never won a championship?”
But that rock solid reasoning doesn’t float in the sewer of social media, where the muck is thicker than summer humidity in south Georgia. Nor did Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s weekly declaration at various points over the past 2 years that Bennett — not 5-stars JT Daniels and Brock Vandagriff, or 4-stars Carson Beck and D’Wan Mathis — gave Georgia the best chance to win.
Instead of celebrating an improbable, feel-good story of small man/big game and the long road it took to get here, obsessing over what Bennett wasn’t overwhelmed everything outside the Georgia locker room. And sometimes inside it.
“It’s hard for players around you to have conviction you’re the guy if you’re not the starter,” Smart said. “He wasn’t the starter this time last year, (or) this time 2 years ago. Then once he got the job (in 2021), he created a little bit of momentum with our players. There’s not a doubt there now.”
It’s easy for teammates to rally around the guy everyone doubts. It’s easy to lock arms and find a way for a quarterback who grew up bleeding Red and Black, a 5-10 firecracker who just wanted to wear the silver britches and compete — no matter what it took.
So Bennett walked on in 2017, but left for junior college at the end of the season because one of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart led Georgia to the national championship game (Jake Fromm), the other was a 5-star former starter (Jacob Eason), and a third 5-star (Justin Fields) was enrolling early the following season.
The math clearly didn’t add up. Smart — he too, a former overachiever at Georgia as a player — wanted Bennett to stay, and made it clear he wanted him to return after junior college.
Instead of playing JC ball and later signing with UMass or Kent State or Louisiana, where he would’ve likely played right away, Bennett came back to Georgia in 2020 — this time on scholarship. Two quarters into the season, he was thrust into the position of saving it — on the road against Arkansas in the season-opener.
It has been a crazy ride since, winning big games and losing rivalry games. Starter and backup, and then starter again.
A game manager at the most important position on the field, and a quarterback whose own offense game-planned around him. He had limitations early in 2021, and then kept getting better.
The throws were crisper, and more accurate. The decision making improved. The timing and anticipation arrived, and the numbers drastically improved: from 8 TDs and 6 INTs in 2020, to 29 TDs and 7 INTs in 2021.
He found two freshman targets (TE Brock Bowers and WR Ladd McConkey) who combined for 18 TDs, and the next thing you know, the guy who would eventually screw it up became the guy who could do no wrong.
He didn’t let go of the emotion midway through the fourth quarter of last year’s national championship game, after a perfect deep ball to Adonai Mitchell gave Georgia a lead it never gave up.
He didn’t let it go after a touchdown pass to Bowers on the next drive put the Dawgs up 8.
Then Ringo made the defensive play of the game, and the next few minutes were a blur.
“I watch it now … just so many emotions for all of us, not just me,” Bennett said.
The dream and the lovable underdog.
From Nahunta to Hollywood and back again.