Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett has enjoyed a major rebound campaign in 2021 after coming in for JT Daniels earlier in the year.
But on Saturday, Bennett ran into his first major challenge of the season. Facing No. 3 Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Bennett performed well, completing 29-of-48 passes for 340 yards with three touchdowns.
However, his second half was marred by a pair of interceptions, including a back-breaking pick-six in the fourth quarter, as the Crimson Tide routed the previously undefeated, No. 1 Bulldogs 41-24.
Georgia is still likely in the College Football Playoff, all but certain to pick up the No. 3 or 4 spot in the rankings after taking only its first loss of the season, but the Bulldogs will now be faced with the question of whether Bennett or Daniels leads the offense in its next game.
After the game, head coach Kirby Smart was asked whether he’d consider a change at quarterback for the next game. Smart said that every week, a decision is made at every position, but that he also has the “utmost confidence” in Bennett and said he felt his quarterback “did some really nice things tonight.”
“We go and reevaluate everything all the time, but he played well and it’s a tough environment we put him in defensively and didn’t, we have to be able to run the ball and have a little bit of semblance of balance,” Smart said. “I thought there was times tonight that we were getting into a scoring contest because our defense didn’t get stops. And you don’t want to have to do that. But I certainly have a lot of confidence in Stetson and I have a lot of confidence in JT too.”
There are two things worth noting to start. First, Bennett is not solely to blame for the loss. The defense that came into the game ranked No. 1 in both scoring and total defense gave up 34 of the 41 points and 536 total yards to the Crimson Tide and Heisman Trophy favorite Bryce Young.
And second, Bennett played a solid first half. In the first half of the SEC Championship Game, Bennett completed 11-of-16 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Most other games, that will get it done.
But it was clear early in the third quarter that Bennett wasn’t the quarterback to go toe-to-toe with Young and Alabama in a shootout. He completed just 8-of-13 passes for 53 yards with an interception and no touchdowns in the third quarter. Young, by comparison, was 3-for-7 with 72 yards and a touchdown to put Alabama up by two touchdowns.
It didn’t get much better in the fourth, even as the Bulldogs were forced to throw. Bennett completed 10-of-19 passes with 119 passing yards and a touchdown, but behind Bennett the Bulldogs were 0-for-3 on third down.
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Bennett has not found himself in a shootout at any point this season. Georgia has only once finished a game within two touchdowns of its opponents, and that came in Week 1 against Clemson with Daniels under center.
Daniels played the team’s first game of the season against Clemson, but was unavailable for the next game against UAB due to an oblique injury. He returned to start against South Carolina and torched Vanderbilt in the first quarter of the next game on Sept. 25, but was then out until Nov. 6 as he continued to deal with injuries.
Bennett filled in from that point on as the starter and flourished, finishing the regular season with 21 touchdown passes, five interceptions, 1,985 passing yards and a completion percentage of 65 percent.
This wasn’t Bennett’s first go-round at Georgia. He was the starter in 2020, and was unspectacular, posting a 55.5 completion percentage, 1,179 passing yards, eight touchdown passes and six interceptions. Daniels, who had just come over from USC as a transfer, took over and dazzled in four games, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,231 yards with 10 passing touchdowns and two interceptions.
Daniels, a former five-star recruit, likely would have remained the full-time starter in 2021 had he not dealt with injuries early in the campaign.
Though Daniels has filled in only sporadically in a backup role for Bennett, he has still shown the ability to be a game-changing quarterback. His numbers overall in 2021: 72.3 completion percentage, 722 passing yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
That hype — and previous success — is what contributed to fans calling for Daniels to replace Bennett in the second half against Alabama. The first interception by Bennett came with the Bulldogs in the red zone that took away a possible scoring chance.
The second resulted in seven points — for the Crimson Tide.
“The first one was a bad decision, the second one I didn’t see the safety driving,” Bennett said after the game. “You can’t have those two plays against players like this. And they made us pay for it.”
Would the QB change have made a difference? It certainly wouldn’t have stopped the Alabama offense, but it might’ve injected some life into a Georgia offense that scored only seven points in the second half.
And it certainly didn’t stop the college football world from calling on Smart to make the change.
Georgia’s road to a national championship will almost certainly go through Alabama. The Crimson Tide are likely to be No. 1, and the Bulldogs figure to be either No. 3 or No. 4 — assuming No. 2 Michigan wins the Big Ten championship.
Bennett was the starter throughout the game against the Crimson Tide this time around and he put up 24 points. The next time the Bulldogs face Alabama, Smart might have to take a look at what Daniels can offer the offense.
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