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Georgia Won the National Title by Becoming the Ghost of Alabama Past

After more than 40 years of waiting, Georgia is college football’s national champion. It finally reached the mountaintop not only by beating Bama, but by embracing a blueprint Nick Saban had left behind.  

I could write 5,000 words about the win that ended Georgia’s four-decade national championship drought, but one player explains it all: a quarterback named Stetson Bennett IV. Appreciate all six syllables. Stetson. Bennett. The Fourth. That’s who just led the Bulldogs to college football immortality.

Without ever seeing Stetson Bennett IV, you probably know what he looks like. He looks like someone whose father is named Stetson Bennett III. (Stetson IV’s grandfather was not named Stetson, but he did briefly play quarterback for Stetson University.) Stetson IV grew up dreaming of being the quarterback for Georgia, because of course he did. This is the school that previously featured QBs named Hutson Mason and Greyson Lambert. It’s the school that famously honors those with Roman numerals tracking their heritage, like beloved mascot Uga X. But Stetson is 5-foot-11 and had a weak arm as a recruit, so he received just one FBS scholarship offer, from Middle Tennessee State. Instead of taking it, he chose to walk on at his dream school in 2017.

In 2018, Bennett transferred to Jones College in Ellisville, Mississippi. In 2019, he went back to Georgia to live out his dream. He played in eight games for the Bulldogs in 2020, but was still projected fourth on the depth chart entering the 2021 season. He was behind five-star recruits with five-star quarterback names, like JT Daniels and Brock Vandagriff.

But Monday night, he quarterbacked the Bulldogs to their first national championship since Stetson Bennett III was a young man. When Stetson IV realized it was actually happening, he went full ugly cry on the sideline:

Georgia won its first national championship since 1980, and it did so by beating Alabama, the team that had tormented it for the past 14 years. The Crimson Tide had dealt the Bulldogs heartbreak after heartbreak: Bama’s backup QB came in to beat Georgia in the national title game following the 2017 season; a different Bama backup QB came in to beat Georgia in the 2018 SEC title game. Alabama even beat Georgia last month, ending the Bulldogs’ dream of a perfect 15-0 season. Heading into Monday, Alabama’s program had won six national championships under head coach Nick Saban; Georgia’s program has been nearly as good at various points throughout that tenure, but it was never enough to topple the Tide.

So Georgia double-, triple-, and quadruple-bolted the coffin shut in the title game, and then buried Alabama in a vault beneath a boulder at the bottom of the ocean. Monday’s contest was competitive most of the way, as neither team scored a touchdown until late in the third quarter. Once the scoring started, though, Georgia wouldn’t stop. The Dawgs used three touchdowns in the final 10 minutes to turn an 18-13 deficit into a 33-18 triumph.

Georgia’s late-game explosion was possible because it broke Bama with a level of physicality that the Tide couldn’t maintain. On offense, Georgia’s running backs went for 167 yards on just 21 carries, almost 8 yards a pop. By the end of the game, the Dawgs were moving the ball at will on the ground. Their offensive line was gleeful in pushing Bama around.

Georgia dominated up front on both sides of the ball. Alabama averaged just 1.1 yards per carry. Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Bryce Young was constantly under pressure, forcing the Tide to rely on quick passes to dink and dunk down the field. Every Alabama offensive play was a symphony of chaos; Georgia’s defense was 11 heat-seeking missiles hell-bent on getting home.

It looked like Alabama losing to the ghost of its past self. Bama used to have teams like this, back when Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was an assistant under Saban. Bama used to win national titles by having the top-rated defense in the sport and a quarterback like Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, or Jacob Coker throwing the ball. But the era when teams could win championships with less-than-stellar passing games seemed to be over. Entering the 2021 season, the past five national championships were won by teams that had Deshaun Watson, Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, and Mac Jones, respectively; all of those QBs threw for three or more touchdowns in the title game, and all went on to become first-round picks in the NFL draft. Unless a team’s offense was led by one of the most talented passers in the nation, it felt like that team didn’t stand much of a chance.

Even Saban embraced this reality. In his first 11 years at Alabama, the Tide finished among the top five nationally in scoring defense eight times and the top five in scoring offense zero times. Over the past four seasons, Bama has been ranked among the top five in scoring offense every year except 2021, when it ranked sixth. It hasn’t been ranked among the top 10 in scoring defense once. Saban even declared that good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore.

But that philosophical change was made after Smart left Alabama in 2016 to become head coach at Georgia, his alma mater. So Smart tried to create a replica of the only version of Bama he knew: one built on the premise that physically bullying an opponent is a more reliable way to win than thriving through the air. Smart hired a bunch of assistants from Saban’s physical bullying wing. Both of Georgia’s co-defensive coordinators, Dan Lanning and Glenn Schumann, once worked under Saban at Alabama. Smart also hired Saban’s longtime strength and conditioning guru Scott Cochran, the guy who yelled muscles onto the bodies of Alabama’s players.

This could have been a recipe for disaster. After all, it’s become a running joke in college football how many schools have hired Saban’s assistants in an attempt to replicate his success. Most of them have failed. There was Derek Dooley at Tennessee, Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee, Jim McElwain at Florida, Will Muschamp at Florida and South Carolina—I swear, some of the coaches have gone to places other than Florida and Tennessee. Smart could’ve been the latest coach to join this legacy of disappointment, especially because he set out to create a version of Alabama that no longer exists.

But while other coaches failed to put together the necessary infrastructure to successfully recreate Saban’s famed process, Smart did the one thing he absolutely had to in order to build a program defined by physicality: He went out and got the most physically dominant 18-year-olds on the planet.

Alabama finished no. 1 in the 247Sports composite team recruiting rankings every year from 2011 to 2017. Georgia snapped that streak under Smart, finishing no. 1 in 2018 and 2020, with a second-place finish in 2019. That paid off in 2021. Georgia led the FBS in scoring defense by allowing just 10.2 points per game, the best mark in the nation by almost five full points. Factoring in Monday’s national championship, the Bulldogs allowed just 153 points in 15 games. The team with the second-fewest points allowed was Texas A&M, which allowed 191 … in 12 games.

If you’ve ever wondered how important recruiting is, rewatch Monday’s game. Time and again, the jewels of Georgia’s recruiting classes broke through and made plays that shaped the outcome. The game’s biggest highlight—the play that will be remembered by Georgia fans as The Play; the one that set off raucous celebrations from Indianapolis to Athens—was a pick-six by cornerback Kelee Ringo. Ringo was a five-star recruit ranked as the fourth-best player at any position in the Class of 2020.

There was Nolan Smith, the five-star recruit ranked as the top player at any position in the Class of 2019, blasting through Alabama’s offensive line and snaring the Tide’s running back before he could reach the line of scrimmage:

There was Jalen Carter, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle who was ranked as the no. 18 recruit in the Class of 2020, physically overpowering a field goal protection unit that had no other job except to stop him from getting his hands on the ball:

There was this 24-yard catch by Alabama’s Agiye Hall—a big play for the Crimson Tide that would have been much bigger if not for a stunning effort by Travon Walker, a 275-pound defensive lineman who was ranked as the no. 22 prospect in the Class of 2019. How the hell did he chase down a wide receiver in the open field?

Even Georgia’s offense borrowed from its all-world defense. There was five-star running back Zamir White (the no. 9 recruit in the Class of 2018) scoring the game’s first touchdown behind five-star lineman Broderick Jones (the no. 11 recruit in 2020), plus blocks from two defenders helping out on offense: the massive Carter playing fullback and the even more massive defensive tackle Jordan Davis playing tight end.

Bennett’s long passing play of the night was this 52-yarder on which he threw the ball as high and far as he could so George Pickens, a five-star recruit ranked 24th in the Class of 2019, could make a miracle catch:

Alabama’s roster was stocked with five-star recruits too, but it arguably lost because of a lack of depth. Bama was without its top two cornerbacks, Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis. Their backups struggled in coverage. The Tide went into this game without their second-best wide receiver, John Metchie III, and lost their top receiver, Jameson Williams, to a brutal knee injury midway through the second quarter. Their backups failed to reel in some of Young’s best passes of the night.

Past Bama teams would have had answers for this. In the second half of the 2018 national championship game in which the Tide came back to beat Georgia, Alabama stopped using Jalen Hurts, Damian Harris, and Calvin Ridley and turned to Tagovailoa, Najee Harris, Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III. That type of move wasn’t an option for this Bama team. Maybe that’s because Georgia now has many of the players who historically would have been riding Alabama’s bench.

It might seem strange to harp on recruiting after Stetson Bennett IV just won a national championship at quarterback. Bennett beat out the five-stars on Georgia’s depth chart to take the job, and beat the five-stars on Alabama’s roster to take the title. But that only happened because Georgia’s elite roster created an environment in which its quarterback needed to be consistent rather than spectacular.

Over the past few years, college football seemed to have morphed into a sport in which you needed a future Pro Bowl quarterback to win a national championship. Bennett will probably not make a Pro Bowl, and he probably won’t even get drafted. It seemed like winning a championship this way was impossible in 2022. But Smart showed Saban that the blueprint he designed is still viable. Georgia bullied the team that has bullied college football for the past 15 years.

Stetson Bennett IV explains this title better than any other player not because he lit Alabama up, but because he didn’t need to in order for Georgia to have the moment it’s been dreaming of for 40 years. That’s why they’ll be talking about him in Athens until the day that Stetson Bennett VIII walks on to the football team.