Georgia Today: A UGA student journalist reflects on witnessing the Bulldogs’ win over Alabama
Athens, Ga., is preparing for a parade this weekend to honor the University of Georgia Bulldogs. The team’s big win this week against Alabama’s Crimson Tide handed the Bulldogs their first national title since 1981. Hear how the Bulldogs made Georgia football history.
[News tape] Game announcer: Demons begone. And the drought is over: National champions at long last.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Today, the first national championship by the Georgia Bulldogs in 41 years. Even better, it was against Alabama.
[News tape] Kirby Smart: There's going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight, baby.
Steve Fennessy: My guest is Drew Hubbard. He's sports editor for UGA's student newspaper, The Red and Black. He covered Monday's game in Indianapolis.
Before we get to the game, I wanted to talk a little bit about the mystique of Georgia football. You grew up in in Georgia, right? You're from Gainesville?
Drew Hubbard: Yes, yes, yes. Gainesville, Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: What was your perception of Georgia football growing up?
Drew Hubbard: I grew up a humongous Falcons fan, and I always thought it was kind of weird that, you know, the college team is such a much bigger deal than the professional team, right? I mean, it's the NFL, it's the top dog. It's the best football in the world, you know? When they kick off on Saturdays, why is this Georgia football team? Why are they the biggest deal? But that's how it is. Gosh, if they play Florida and Jacksonville, the whole South just shuts down for that game. So growing up, you always knew that Georgia football was on top. That was the biggest thing that was going on.
Steve Fennessy: What is it that makes specifically, you think, UGA football so absolutely essential to the Georgia and — and, maybe, even the Southern experience?
Drew Hubbard: Athens, for those who aren't really super familiar with the town, it is 100,000% just a college town. Without UGA. I'm not sure what Athens would be. There are multiple cities like that in the South, right? Auburn, Alabama. Auburn University football kind of runs the show there. Tuscaloosa, over at the University of Alabama? Not a whole lot going on there besides the University of Alabama. And I think that's a very exclusive Southern theme that these cities are kind of revolved around. The University of Football in the South is its life. You go to these football games with your friends, you tailgate, you do the whole nine yards, you go out after a game if it's a win, if it's a loss. This very unique Athens, Southern experience, I think, has made people gravitate toward that a lot more than just going to another big city, spending a lot of money and going to a pro NFL game.
Steve Fennessy: Well, Drew, take us back to the beginning of this season.
Drew Hubbard: A cool thing about this Georgia season, right, started off Week 1 against Clemson with the pandemic. I mean, this was the first game in a while that — it was full capacity. It was in Charlotte that was the big game of the year. So I mean, if you're a freshman and you were at the national championship game, you went from very limited capacity to one of the most historic seasons in Georgia football history in the span of two years.
Steve Fennessy: Going back to that Georgia-Clemson game, the season opener, where Georgia beat Clemson 10 - 3 and upset Clemson, at what point did you start to feel like, oh, you know, this could be something really special?
Drew Hubbard: Like you said, it was an upset for Georgia to do that. 10 to 3; neither team scored an offensive touchdown. Georgia, the only touchdown of the game was because Georgia intercepted the ball and ran it back for a touchdown. So from then on, I knew that Georgia's defense was going to be phenomenal and continuing to see this team dominate other SEC teams.
[News tape] Game announcer: The hype will begin to build for this team. They could move up to No. 2 right behind Alabama.
Drew Hubbard: You know, at the time, Arkansas was No. 8 in the country, a game that — didn't really think that was going to be a big game in the start of the season. It was a good game, Georgia rolls over them, 37 to nothing. And then we get kind of a similar thing: Kentucky coming to Athens. I think Kentucky was No. 11. So No. 11 versus No. 1. Georgia steamrolls Kentucky. And I think that was the moment where I thought, OK, you might have a playoff run. And then when you're in the playoffs, right, it's just one loss and you're done. So that was the kind of first moment that I thought we might be onto something special here.
Steve Fennessy: And we can't talk about UGA's miraculous season without talking about its quarterback.
[News tape] FOX News: Stetson Bennett. The Georgia quarterback epitomizes what we, as Americans should be fighting for every day —the little guy who has a dream and is willing to work hard to overcome difficulties, to persist and doesn't give up.
Drew Hubbard: His journey has been very well documented. He grew up a huge Georgia fan. He's from Blackshear, Ga. — South Georgia. His parents went to Georgia. He always had the dream as a kid, right? That I'm going to be the starting quarterback at the University of Georgia. I'm going to lead the Dawgs to a national championship. And then he comes to Georgia as a walk-on freshman and is on the scout team. Scout team quarterback is pretty much a guy that the defense can practice against to get ready for their opponents and say this Stetson Bennett is very similar to the opponent we're going to face in our next game. He was the guy that you practiced against to get ready for the real competition in the Rose Bowl.
Steve Fennessy: And this is Stetson Bennett's freshman year, which was the 2017 season.
Drew Hubbard: You know, the team constantly was talking about oh, this Stetson Bennett guy, like, he's really good. And then Georgia goes on to beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl to advance to the national championship, which they later lost to Alabama. He wasn't given the opportunity to play his next season, his sophomore season. So he said, Well, I'll transfer to a Jones — a smaller junior college in Ellisville, Mississippi. I believe Jones College, really small junior college. He said. I'll transfer there. So he goes to this junior college in Mississippi and tears it up. I mean, he's setting records, he's winning championships with them and then Georgia comes back down. Kirby Smart, Georgia head coach, comes back around and says, "Do you want to come back?" And he does and gets a starting job as a junior, and then he has a really good start. And then he has kind of a rough patch. Insert JT Daniels, who transferred from the University of Southern California. So JT Daniels steps on the scene, takes Stetson Bennett's job and JT Daniels has a phenomenal stretch. He goes 4 and 0 to end last season.
Steve Fennessy: All right, so let's recap Stetson Bennett's — his kind of ping-pong collegiate career. He comes to UGA in 2017. He leaves UGA the next season. He comes back in 2018. He ends up winning the starting quarterback job, but then he loses it in the 2020 season to JT Daniels.
Drew Hubbard: Yeah, and then Daniels takes it. And then, you know, starting this season talking about Clemson. Daniels leads, obviously, at the end of the day Georgia beat Clemson and Daniels is the quarterback. You know, we're in the top four. We're looking pretty for the rest of the season. Daniels is our guy. And then Daniels goes down with an injury.
[News tape] Georgia Bulldogs: Sometimes, you know, in athletics, it feels like if you get hurt and you can stay hurt, and I don't know if that's going to be the case with JT, it doesn't seem like it. Let me just get to what Kirby said. He said the oblique is fine. He's been having a little bit of a lat issue, the lat is part of your back, kind of upper back. Smart told reporters it's bothered him some last week, and it bothered him some this week, but he's done a good job. He's sharp. Watches all his game tape, gets his reps and he's done a good job, so we're hoping he can stay that way.
Drew Hubbard: So Kirby Smart says, OK, we'll rest JT Daniels, gives him some time to heal. Well, Bennett goes in there and tears it up just like he did. You know he plays really well throughout the season. He has gotten loads and loads of questions. Are you the guy? Why is Kirby Smart playing you and things like that?
Steve Fennessy: So as the sports editor at the Red and Black, what — what are the answers that you're hearing to these questions? Whether, you know, because that's ultimately Kirby Smart's call, right? He's the coach. What did he have to say about why he continued with Stetson Bennett?
Drew Hubbard: Kirby Smart said, "We think Stetson Bennett gives us the best chance to win." And for a while it was like, Are you serious? What do you mean, he gives us the best chance to win? We got a five-star sitting on the bench. You know, Kirby Smart was just consistent the whole time that, you know, he thinks Stetson Bennett is a better option. Stetson Bennett can do some things that JT Daniels can't. Stetson Bennett can run much more than JT Daniels can, and that was just — the whole time Smart said, "Bennett gives us the best chance to win."
[News tape] Kirby Smart: We got a lot of guys hurt and beat up, including the quarterback, and we hope he's getting better. We feel like he's getting better. But you know, Stetson played a hell of a game. Stetson made plays with his feet, with his athleticism, and that's a dynamic that he brings. It forces them to defend us different ways. He played really well, too, last year. I don't think people give him enough credit for that.
Steve Fennessy: Next, how quarterback Stetson Bennett defied the expectations of more than a few detractors and delivered Georgia its first championship since 1981.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Red and Black sports editor Drew Hubbard. OK, Kirby Smart goes with Stetson Bennett for the bulk of the 2021 season as his starting quarterback. But then we reached the SEC Championship in early December. UGA is ranked No. 1 in the country, but they're also facing the dreaded Alabama team, which the Bulldogs have not beaten since something like 2007. And sure enough, Georgia ends up losing.
Drew Hubbard: That was probably the first time, I think, this season that I really questioned Kirby Smart sticking with Stetson Bennett because the SEC Championship was on Dec. 4 and the next time Georgia would play was against Michigan in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 31. Daniels and Bennett did not have a good game against Alabama. He threw two interceptions, one of which was rain back for a touchdown. That was probably his worst game of the season, and I think that was my moment where I said, "You have a five-star sitting on the bench, you have three weeks to get this guy ready for Michigan. Maybe now's the time to do so."
Steve Fennessy: Drew, how is it different covering UGA football from the perspective of a student journalist versus, say, for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?
Drew Hubbard: I think one of the really awesome pieces of being a student journalist is that, especially covering a college football team, is that these are also student athletes. Student journalists, right, we kind of are that plug for people to see what life's really like on campus? And from football perspective, I mean, that includes, you know, really just being on the same level with those guys. When we're interviewing Stetson Bennett, he's our classmate, in a lot of cases. You know, he's just a normal guy that is our age, has the same problems we do. You know, he's trying to play football, but also pass his classes or worry about his finals and things like that. So, I mean, being a student journalist we're able to, you know, be those guys that are really just tapped into the campus that can kind of connect the outside public to what's going on at UGA.
Steve Fennessy: What's Stetson Bennett like to interview, for you?
Drew Hubbard: He's awesome. I actually love interviewing Stetson Bennett. I think a part of him that has grown along with his play on the football field has just been his ability to just not really care when he's getting interviewed, and he's just this like, "I don't really care what you think about me" attitude.
[News tape] Stetson Bennett: You know, I think I always had a pretty constant view about myself. I think I learned that life's hard. You know, you gotta work for what you want. You know, you have to bet on yourself. Love the people who's around you, they got to love you. And bet on yourself.
Drew Hubbard: He is known now for having a flip phone because he doesn't want to be on social media. Like, he doesn't care what we say about him. He's going to be himself. He's going to say whatever comes to his mind. He's brutally honest. He'll criticize himself. So, you know, praise himself when you need to praise his teammates. But I think he's grown a lot in the whole media thing. And, you know, at some point, I think he just stopped caring about what people say about in the papers or everything because he's heard it all. He's been doubted so much.
[News tape] Game announcer: We've talked so much about Stetson Bennett. There's a lot of heroes on the Georgia side. But you know, Bennett, as his story, has kind of a Southern gothic tone to it.
Steve Fennessy: Monday night's game, I watched it at home like most most of us did, and I saw the first two possessions by Georgia where I think they gained all of one yard in those first two possessions and I'm thinking, "Uh oh, here we go again." From your perspective, what did it feel like?
Drew Hubbard: It felt like we've seen this movie before, right? We've seen, "okay, Georgia's good. They're not Alabama good." So when you're seeing Georgia struggling to begin with, it's like, holy crap, like, this is going to be even worse. This is this is going to be embarrassing. Seeing those first two drives was, "This is not going to go well."
[News tape] Game announcer: In the back field they fake it to him. Bennett pressured on the rollout, and he's going to be sacked immediately. Christian Harris got there and it's a big loss.
Steve Fennessy: And so they're trading field goals, by and large, for most of the first half, and then we get into the third quarter, and that's when we finally see the very first touchdown of the game, which is by University of Georgia. But then we have this controversial call by the referees, which took a while for them to deliver. When Stetson Bennett was tackled and looked like, maybe he was throwing the ball, maybe it was a fumble. But the ref said it was a fumble and Alabama recovered, I think, on the 16-yard line of UGA. It's like, "Oh, here we go again" again, right?
Drew Hubbard: Like you said, is Bennett passing? Is it a fumble? Does Alabama recover the ball inbounds? Is his foot on the line?
[News tape] Game announcers: I think I don't know if that ball came out of his hand before his arm came forward, but the referee was right there discussing whether, perhaps, was a fumble. He threw the beanbag down.
[News tape] Referee: Ruling on the field is a fumble recovered by the defense. First down.
Drew Hubbard: This is a call we're going to look at in a couple of years and say, "That's what got us."
Steve Fennessy: And Alabama ends up scoring, which I believe puts them ahead 18-13, right?
Drew Hubbard: Yes. Yeah, that was their first lead of the game.
Steve Fennessy: So we're in the fourth quarter and this is when everything happened, Drew. I mean, this was incredible because we saw this really crucial turnover by Stetson Bennett, which is just giving ammunition to his detractors like, "Oh, see, this is what I'm talking about. This is why he can't lead us to the football championship." And then he has that incredible pass. Tell us about that and what it felt like to see the see the response that Stetson Bennett had on the next possession.
Drew Hubbard: Yeah, I think that whole drive, I mean, he's in the national championship, the biggest stage. Like you said, he just had the weirdest turnover I've probably ever seen. Everything's against him. And then he hits a 40-yard touchdown pass.
[News tape] Game announcer: Bennett launching. Mitchell caught it. Touchdown, Georgia! With a free play the Dawgs retake the lead.
Drew Hubbard: We haven't seen Stetson Bennett make a 40-yard touchdown pass in the biggest game probably of his career, so that was a, you know, "oh, shoot!" moment. And I think that kind of got Georgia fans like, maybe we'll actually win this.
[News tape] ESPN College Football: You said before the game, your team had a hunger to them. How did you see that play out on the field?
[News tape] ESPN College Football, Kirby Smart: I saw it at halftime. You know, there were people that said we weren't conditioned enough and it pissed a lot of people off from our sideline and they went to work. And before we came today we burned the boats and we came up fighting. And I'm proud of these men.
[News tape] ESPN College Football: You worked under Nick Saban for 11 seasons. You lost this game against Alabama in 2017. How much sweeter does that make this win?
[News tape] ESPN College Football, Kirby Smart: Well, that one will be with me for a long time but this one will be with me for much longer.
[News tape] ESPN College Football: After 41 years the University of Georgia are national champions. How does that sound to you?
[News tape] ESPN College Football, Kirby Smart: I hope it doesn't take that long again. Go Dawgs.
[News tape] ESPN College Football: Congratulations on the win, coach.
Drew Hubbard: You know, if you follow the script of Georgia-Alabama, that Stetson Bennett doing that is not a part of the script that people have expected.
Steve Fennessy: And I think that if there's an image that's going to stay with me from someone who is watching it on TV, it's Kelee Ringo's pick six, you know, in the last 90 seconds or so of the game.
[News tape] Game announcer: From the pocket, launching downfield — under-thrown! And intercepted! Kelee Ringo.
Steve Fennessy: And he's pretty much right in front of Kirby Smart, who leaps into the air.
[News tape] Game announcer: All the way to the end zone.
Steve Fennessy: That seemed to be the moment when this was a reality. What was it like watching it from where you were watching it?
Drew Hubbard: It was a "oh, shoot, like, this might actually be happening" moment. And Alabama was down 8 at the time of the interception. So if that interception doesn't happen, and Alabama scores a touchdown and gets a 2-point conversion, you know, that game is tied. So that was kind of Alabama's drive to tie the game up. And when he catches the ball, it's — you keep seeing him run. You look down the field and you're like, there's only two Alabama guys, and Georgia's got like five blockers down there. Like, he might run this back. And you start to hear the Georgia fans kind of think the same thing. And then when he crosses the end zone, I think the whole stadium just erupted.
[News tape] Game announcer: And Georgia is going to conquer the Crimson Tide.
Drew Hubbard: Seeing people finally get what they've waited so long for, right, I mean it's 40-something years. That's what makes this championship so cool is that people have waited so long. They've come so close. And to finally see it at all is phenomenal. But to be in the stadium when it happened was a "holy crap" moment.
Steve Fennessy: When Kirby Smart invoked that famous call by Larry Munson from 1980 when UGA played Florida — tell us about, first of all, what that call was because the way he invoked that was really funny.
[News tape] Game announcer: OK, first, Kirby, I got to know. What does that trophy taste like?
[News tape] Kirby Smart: Well, I didn't get a full taste, but I can tell you this: There's going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight, baby!
Drew Hubbard: Which is a reference to Larry Munson's call in 1980, a historic Georgia broadcaster, when Georgia beat Florida in 1980.
[Archival tape] Larry Munson: Do you know what is going to happen here tonight? Man, is there going to be some property destroyed tonight.
Drew Hubbard: I think a lot of Georgia fans will agree that Florida is a team that they hate the most. They love beating Florida. And Larry Munson, when Georgia beat Florida in 1980, the last time Georgia won a national championship, Larry Munson famously said there's going to be some property destroyed tonight. And Kirby Smart, knowing the last time he played at Georgia — he grew up in Bainbridge, Georgia, he's grown up around Georgia football his whole life, played there in the '90s. So he won a national championship at his alma mater and knowing the Georgia fan base, knowing how long they've waited for this, he said, "There's going to be some property destroyed in Indianapolis tonight." And that was such a cool nod to that 1980 team.
Steve Fennessy: Everybody who's a Georgia fan probably got the reference.
Drew Hubbard: Absolutely. And Vince Dooley, the head coach of the 1980 team, he was there. So, you know, I mean, that was just a cool moment.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you can't win a national championship without getting a parade. And Georgia will have its own and the streets of Athens this Saturday, Jan. 15.
[News tape] 11Alive: A huge crowd in Athens is expected for the celebration on Saturday. It begins with a parade at 12:30 p.m. on Lumpkin Street, heading into Sanford Stadium with the Dawg Walk at 1 p.m. as the players get off their buses and head into the stadium for a ceremony that starts at 2 p.m. Now the tickets are free. They will be first available to season ticket holders and students. Any remaining tickets will be offered to the general public starting on Thursday.
Steve Fennessy: Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. We'll be back next week. Go Dawgs.