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Post Opening the door for Stetson Bennett: Heisman finalist

Wednesday December 7, 2022

It was just a year ago – December 4, 2021 – that Georgia lost a game. Alabama’s convincing SEC Championship Game win over #1 Georgia temporarily halted any talk of a new order in college football. Beyond the bigger picture question the loss rekindled a concern and almost a panic hiding within every Georgia fan. The Dawgs had a defense that had been called generational. The offensive scheme, laid bare and found wanting in 2019, had been overhauled under Todd Monken and showed the creativity and adaptability necessary to succeed in today’s game. There were future draft picks at every position on the offense. The only question seemed to be whether Georgia had the quarterback to put it all together.

For two years the tacit understanding was that Stetson Bennett was a placeholder at quarterback. It was Jamie Newman who was supposed to lead Georgia through Monken’s offensive renaissance. Then it was J.T. Daniels. Only a highly-rated prospect seemingly on his way to the NFL could deliver the production that elevated LSU and Alabama to titles in 2019 and 2020. As recently as the 2021 Orange Bowl – even after an undefeated regular season – there was uncertainty whether Georgia would switch quarterbacks after a lackluster performance in the SEC Championship.

Stetson Bennett finally earned the trust of fans and – more importantly – his coaches for the 2022 season and has been the unquestioned starter from the beginning. Leading a team through the college football playoff will do that for you. With the confidence of an experienced starter he’s shown complete command of the offense, navigated the team through another undefeated regular season, won an SEC title, and has earned the honor of a Heisman finalist. No one saw this coming three years ago, but you can say that about nearly every one of his accomplishments. Multi-year starter? SEC champion? National champion? Heisman finalist? Pro prospect? Inconceivable.

The Heisman finalist might be the most mind-blowing accomplishment to me. Not because it’s Bennett but in part because he’s the Georgia quarterback. I’ve usually discounted the chances for a Georgia quarterback to be considered because the Bulldogs don’t throw that much – even running Monken’s offense. It’s true that Georgia has thrown more this year, but it’s pretty stunning how far the rest of the field has come back to earth. I know passing yardage is a simplistic stat, but it’s where a lot of voters start who don’t see all of the games. (Like the 1,000-yard threshold for a running back.)

Look at some recent winners: Baker Mayfield threw for 4,600 in 2017. Young threw for 4,800 a year ago. There’s Joe Burrow’s ridiculous 5,700 yards in 2019. Even Mac Jones threw for 4,500 in a shortened 2020 season.

Now look at this year’s slate: Only Caleb Williams cracked 4,000 yards passing. Stroud, Duggan, and even Hooker are all around 3,100-3,300 yards. That opened the door for Bennett to be considered alongside them even though he’s far short of Aaron Murray’s 3,900 yards and 36 TD in 2012. He has 3,426 passing yards and passing 20 TD through 13 games. His mobility is an asset, but his 184 rushing yards don’t come close to the typical dual-threat Heisman candidate. He’s been efficient and productive relative to his (and Georgia’s) baseline. He’s the cocky leader of the #1 team in the nation, and his career arc is a fantastic story. In a season with fewer players than usual boasting eye-popping numbers, it’s the perfect moment for Bennett to build a compelling case for the sport’s highest individual honor.

(On a related note – I think that’s why Brice Young wasn’t among this year’s finalists. He’s fantastic and saved Bama on more than one occasion. But he set a high bar last year and threw for nearly 1,800 fewer yards in 2022. It’s a tough sell when voters see a guy with 65% of his production from a year ago.)

I don’t know what it says about the state of QB play that production has dropped far enough for a good year by a UGA QB to be considered Heisman-worthy. These are all very good QBs – even the ones who weren’t finalists. Only four QBs this year have surpassed 4,000 yards. There were nine a year ago (including Stroud and Young.) Are defenses catching up?

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