The most memorable moment of a legendary athlete’s career is generally some sort of spectacular play. A buzzer-beating game-winner, a shot or pass that nobody else could make; a highlight that brought the crowd to its feet. But the defining moment for Stetson Bennett IV, now officially one of the most successful quarterbacks in modern college football history, will be one in which he didn’t pass or run.
His moment came with 13 minutes left in Monday’s national championship game and Georgia leading TCU 52-7. (Yes, fifty-two to seven.) Georgia head coach Kirby Smart called a timeout to take Bennett out of the game. The sixth-year senior playing in his final college game came to the sideline and hugged his coach, knowing that his seemingly endless college football saga had ended in the best way possible.
Stetson Bennett gets his curtain call with 13 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 10, 2023
What a career
This isn’t to say that Bennett didn’t have highlights in his second national championship victory in as many seasons. He accounted for six touchdowns Monday night—four passes, two runs—in the best game of his career. But we’ve seen people throw a lot of touchdowns before. We’ve never seen a player subbed out of the most important game of the college football season with a quarter left because they were up by seven touchdowns. This is supposed to happen in those games in which a big-time program pays a small FCS school to lose in front of a big home crowd … except it was the national championship game. (And honestly this is unfair to FCS schools; Georgia beat Samford by only 33 in September.)
The Bulldogs kept scoring with Bennett out, eventually winning 65-7. (Yes, sixty-five to seven.) TCU got exactly two stops in 60 minutes of football, forcing exactly one field goal and one punt while allowing nine touchdowns. Meanwhile, Georgia allowed TCU to cross the 40-yard line only once, on a busted coverage.
No matter how you break it down, this win makes Georgia one of the greatest teams in college football history. They are just the second team to win back-to-back championships since the sport started having designated national championship games in 1995. Some of the schools we think about as dynasties—Miami around the turn of the century, Clemson at the dawn of the College Football Playoff, etc.—never pulled off a repeat. Only Alabama in 2011 and 2012 did it. (USC, with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, finished first in AP voting after the 2003 season and won the championship game in 2004, but the latter result was vacated.) And nobody has ever won a championship game by this much. In fact, 58 points is the largest margin of victory by any team in any bowl game in college football history—and it came in the national championship game, rather than some random bowl named after a roof repair company featuring two mismatched teams from mismatched conferences.
Georgia opened the season against Oregon and humiliated the Ducks, picking off Bo Nix twice while going for 571 offensive yards in a 49-3 win. It seemed like a sign Oregon would have a down year. Nope! The Ducks finished 10-3, ranking as high as sixth in the country during the season. Georgia was just a team that wins games by 46 points. The season-opening win against the Ducks was closer than the season-closing win in the national title game.
Monday night was the first game I attended this college football season, after watching hundreds of games on my couch. Walking around the field at SoFi Stadium before the game, I tried to soak in the bands and the fans and the atmosphere—but there was also something unavoidably obvious simply watching the two teams go through drills: Georgia was bigger and stronger and faster than TCU. Simply standing near Georgia’s defensive line as they practiced firing off the snap seemed dangerous. The Bulldogs likely won the game over the last few months and years of recruiting: Georgia has landed 18 five-star recruits, 14 of whom were on the championship game roster; TCU had no five-star recruits playing on Monday. Yes, Georgia is great at developing players too—its quarterback is Stetson Bennett IV—but, well, stars matter.
In his postgame press conference, Smart cited lots of factors for a rare title blowout: his team’s toughness; the intelligence Bennett showed by checking in and out of plays after reading the TCU defense; a phenomenal performance by Georgia’s defensive scout team to mimic TCU’s 3-3-5 defense. I believe all of these things to be real—Georgia was better schematically, better prepared, and seemed to have more energy. Perhaps TCU was emotionally spent after a thrilling season filled with come-from-behind, last-second wins. Georgia even had more finesse in addition to being larger: Quarterback Max Duggan, the Heisman runner-up, played his worst game of the season, missing throw after throw after throw, while Bennett was on fire.
But what the hell are you supposed to do about being smaller and weaker and slower? What’s the final score if TCU and Georgia were equally tough, and Bennett made a ton of wrong reads, and Georgia’s scout team stunk … but all of Georgia’s players were still significantly better? 42-14? 35-24?
It’s easy to see Georgia’s off-the-bus dominance as a sign of something about college football that needs fixing. Mismatches like this simply don’t occur in pro sports. No NFL game in the Super Bowl era has had a margin of victory higher than 59 points, because the NFL doesn’t allow one team to have 18 times more elite players than the other. It’s depressing to contemplate that all of TCU’s hard work in a dream season didn’t matter because of recruiting wins Georgia made years ago.
But it’s actually pretty hard to maintain complete dominance in a sport with as much roster turnover as college football. Last year, Georgia had 15 players picked in the NFL draft; Pro Football Focus puts 11 Dawgs on its 2023 big board, without diving into the question of whether anybody will take a flyer on the 25-year-old Bennett at QB. (Maybe a team should sign him just to be the holder.) A few years ago Alabama and Clemson seemed like The Team To Beat, and this year neither made the playoff. Even with a new crop of five-stars heading to Athens, there’s no guarantee Georgia will be back here next year for the three-peat. Hell, if Ohio State’s kicker had made a field goal instead of shanking one as the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, Georgia wouldn’t have even been in this title game.
But I walked out of the stadium with a sense of awe about what we witnessed Monday night. It might not have been fun to watch Georgia win by about a million, but I’m glad Smart stopped the game to get his quarterback a round of applause. A season for the ages deserved a curtain call.