Things were slipping away from Stetson Bennett and Georgia on Saturday night.
The Bulldogs starting quarterback had just thrown his third interception of the game against Alabama, this one the most inexplicable after being chased to the right and throwing back across the middle with no receiver nearby.
Coach Kirby Smart talked to Bennett on the sideline after the play and then patted him on the midsection three times. In the final minute of the 41-24 loss, offensive guard Justin Shaffer had his arm around Bennett as he offered encouraging words.
Bennett’s interceptions Saturday, along with five passes that were batted down, came in a game in which Georgia was shutout in the second half, prompting many to wonder if the Bulldogs can win a rematch with Alabama in the SEC title game and be a legitimate playoff contender with the 5-foot-11 former walk-on at the position.
If a change were to be made, this open date before playing at Kentucky Oct. 31 would be a prime opportunity. Smart didn’t say definitively when asked Tuesday if Bennett would remain the starter, but also didn’t indicate a change was in the works.
“Like I’ve talked about before. I feel great about Stetson,” Smart said. “He’s done a good job managing the situations we’ve put him in. He made a couple of bad decisions.”
Coaches will certainly get a chance this week to look more at the other quarterbacks— Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels, redshirt sophomore D’Wan Mathis and true freshman Carson Beck.
“This week, we’ll get to get a lot of guys reps,” Smart said. “JT will get reps, D’Wan will get reps, Stetson will continue to get reps. We try to develop our roster is the way we look at it. It doesn’t change, it just gives us a chance to give more guys work and see where they are in their progress and that’s true at every position, including quarterback.”
The timing this week comes as No. 4 Georgia (3-1) is coming off its first loss of the season and the feel-good story of Bennett is met with hard questions being asked about if he’s the answer long-term this season.
“I’m saying right now that Georgia has major question marks at the quarterback position,” former Alabama quarterback Greg McElory, now an ESPN analyst, said on air Saturday night. “In 2020, I am genuinely concerned about teams that have question marks at that spot, moreso than maybe any other year because of the teams you’re playing against, they all have firepower.”
If Georgia gets to the SEC championship game, it will almost certainly play an Alabama team that has a Heisman Trophy candidate in Mac Jones at quarterback. Other national title contenders also have difference makers at the position in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who Smart landed at Georgia but who transferred after one season backing up Jake Fromm. The Bulldogs will also go against a Florida team with Kyle Trask who leads the SEC with 14 touchdown passes.
Bennett was told in the preseason that the Georgia coaches didn’t see him as their starting quarterback.
The opt-out of Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman, the presumed starter, eventually led to Mathis, a former four-star recruit, starting against Arkansas when Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels, a five-star recruit, wasn’t yet cleared medically to play coming off ACL surgery.
Bennett rallied Georgia to a win in the opener after Mathis was pulled and won a pair of home games against top 15 Auburn and Tennessee. Daniels warmed up Saturday at Alabama without a brace on his surgically repaired knee. He underwent ACL surgery after being lost for the season in the 2019 Trojan opener and had a follow-up procedure by January.
“I think Stetson probably feels he needs to be playing close to perfect because he’s got these other fantastic quarterbacks right there itching to play and maybe fit the profile a little bit better than Stetson. Who knows?” Sean Pender, who coached Bennett at Pierce County, said prior to Bennett’s second Georgia start against Tennessee. “The leader of that team has to have the intangibles to lead and I know Stetson has those intangibles.”
Daniels got the green light by the medical staff to play in games in week two, but he hasn’t seen any action yet.
“Everything else is revolved around who we think gives us the best chance to win,” Smart said. “That’s ultimately the decision we have.”
Bennett managed to avoid any interceptions in the first three games but it showed up against Alabama. Bennett was particularly perturbed with his final one and knew what he did wrong.
“Don’t throw it across my body, which I’ve known since I was four years old,” Bennett said.
His other in the second half came with Georgia at the Alabama 25. The pass to Jermaine Burton on a throw over the middle went off Burton’s hands but was too high.
“That one’s on the quarterback,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said on air.
“Sometimes you get batted balls and they get tipped and they get picked,” Smart said. “Sometimes you throw a ball, you miss Jermaine a little bit over the middle there, it’s a little bit out of his reach, maybe Jermaine gets his hands on it more, it’s just unfortunate they picked it. The ones that don’t get picked concern me more when we throw into coverage and we had a couple of those.”
Pender said Bennett has a “gunslinger’s mentality” who will make mistakes.
Georgia led 24-20 with under five minutes to go in the third quarter but its second half drives ended like this: punt, punt, interception, interception, missed field goal.
Bennett, who completed 18 of 40 passes against Alabama, is eighth in the SEC in passing efficiency (135.9) and sixth in yards per attempt (7.73). He connected with James Cook on an 82-yard touchdown, the longest pass play for Georgia since 2013.
“He’s done a really good job of executing on third down,” Smart said. “He hit some guys that have dropped some balls on third down. We’ve become a third down team since he’s been in there. We’ve got to continue to improve on that. Everybody around him has to continue to improve.”