By Jordan Morey | @JordanAMorey
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Growing up in small-town southern Georgia, Stetson Bennett IV would often listen to old clips on YouTube of Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Larry Munson calling Bulldogs football games.
Bennett wasn’t born until 18 years after the University of Georgia claimed its last national championship, but it didn’t take long for the boy from Blackshear to realize just how much winning a title meant to his fellow Georgians.
Bennett has also seen the pain of coming up short of the national title with the Alabama Crimson Tide often spoiling some of the Bulldogs’ best seasons.
Now, the walk-on turned starting quarterback has the chance to immortalize his name in Athens with the greats from 1980, including Herschel Walker, Buck Belue and Lindsay Scott, all of whom have given him advice this season leading up to a defining moment for Bennett and this generation of Georgia teammates.
On Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Bennett and the No. 3 Bulldogs (13-1) will have an opportunity to change the narrative surrounding college football that it’s the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-1) first and everyone else second.
While much has been said about Bennett’s journey from JUCO to Georgia, the quarterback is refusing to put pressure on himself to deliver a national title.
“Do I know that means a lot to a lot of people? Yes,” Bennett said earlier this week. “Am I trying to play some kind of savior by winning a national championship for millions of people? No.
“I don’t think that’s my job,” he went on. “My job is to go out there and throw completions to very talented people we have on this team. And I think it’s as simple as that. So, yes, I know it means a lot to a lot of people. Is it just another game? No, I’m not silly. But I don’t think for 20-year-old kids you can put that kind of pressure on yourself because you might go crazy.”
The Bulldogs won’t deny their recent history against the Tide has been lopsided, losing seven straight to Alabama, but don’t feel intimidated going into the matchup.
Rather than living in denial, the Bulldogs would rather use the recent lack of success as motivation.
“You can’t really run away from the truth,” Bulldogs senior left tackle Jamaree Salyer said Saturday. “That’s what it is. That’s our record. But we’re not trying to make it an emotional thing, where you go out playing with emotions.”
Salyer captured the challenge the Bulldogs will face Monday night, the importance of managing their collective mindset in the enormity of a highly-anticipated moment.
The truth is that Alabama, under head coach Nick Saban, has dominated Georgia and the rest of college football for much of the last 15 years. During the Saban era, the Tide have won six national championships while appearing in the championship game eight times.
Since the inception of the four-team playoff format in the 2014 season, Alabama has appeared in the semifinals in seven of eight seasons, with appearances in six of seven championship games.
The Tide are 9-2 all-time against the Bulldogs since Saban took the program over in 2007, and those victories include three SEC championships and the national title game in 2018.
For many among the Bulldog faithful, no loss hurts more than the title game four years ago in Atlanta. That was when Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench in the second half to replace struggling Jalen Hurts, and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith for a stunning 26-23 overtime win.
Even when the Bulldogs were favored this season, in the SEC Championship Game on December 4, the Tide stunned then-No.1 Georgia – which has the nation’s top scoring defense — in a 41-24 win.
Under head coach Kirby Smart, who worked as an assistant under Saban from 2007-2015 including seven years as the defense coordinator, the Bulldogs are 0-4 against the Tide.
Earlier this week, Smart wouldn’t call the Tide the “boogeyman” for Georgia’s football program, but that’s mainly because he said doesn’t know what that is. Rather, Smart recognized the Tide’s dominance over college football as a whole.
“They’ve also been a problem and a thorn for any team they’ve played besides ours,” Smart said Monday. “We have that in common with a lot of teams.”
Coming off a 34-11 Orange Bowl victory over No. 2 Michigan on New Year’s Eve, the Bulldogs have refocused, led by a senior group that is tied for the most wins for a Georgia class at 44.
“After the last Alabama game it was like our wake-up call,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Davis said Saturday. “We realized that we had a lot of work to do and we hadn’t arrived yet.”
The Bulldogs are considered the favorites going into their championship game despite the Tide holding the higher seed and SEC Championship victory this season. The rare circumstance of a rematch from a regular-season game could provide Georgia with some hope.
For while there are few accomplishments Saban has not collected during his time in Tuscaloosa, his teams have never beaten an opponent twice in a season. The only time his team has met an opponent twice was in 2011, when the Tide lost at home to Louisiana State in early November but stifled the Tigers, 21-0, in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
“I don’t know that that experience is going to have anything to do with this experience,” Saban said Monday. “We’ve got a different team. They’ve got a different team. They’ve got a good team….
“Those two games were extremely hard-fought, close games in both circumstances. And I would expect the same in this game. I think both teams sort of realized where they are. The opportunity that they created for themselves and everybody’s going to be really zeroed in on trying to do the best job they can to take advantage of it.”
Players from both Alabama and Georgia both reiterated their main goal is bringing home the trophy, but a win by the Bulldogs could also help turn the page in what has been a chapter out of a horror story for the program since the turn of the century.
“The whole state’s behind us,” Davis said. “And you can think back to how many great teams have been at the University of Georgia since 1980 that haven’t won a championship. We just want to take that opportunity and be different. And at the end of the day that’s what we came here for. That’s what we’re grinding for. And we want to do something absolutely special in our time here.”