Georgia’s 3 super seniors cherish perfect ending to careers as Bulldogs

LOS ANGELES — In the aftermath of Georgia’s first national championship since 1980 in January 2021, three players decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s additional year of eligibility and return for one more season as Bulldogs. That decision proved worthwhile for all three Bulldogs, who added another national championship to their collection on Monday night.

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennettoutside linebacker Robert Beal and safety Chris Smith opted to come back for one more season in Athens and did their part to help the Bulldogs become the sport’s first back-to-back national champions since Alabama in 2011-12. While coming back after the ultimate moment as a player last January offered the risk of a less-than-ideal ending, those three players and the rest of the Bulldogs made sure the 2022 season ended much like the 2021 did — with the College Football Playoff trophy headed to Athens.

“At the end of last season, I knew I could come back, mature more, develop a little more, get ready for the real world. So I came back, worked real hard, got all the guys on one accord and we came out victorious in the end,” Beal said. “I can write a book about everything I have been through in college. It has been a blessing in disguise. I came in bushy and bright-eyed. Now I am leaving a man ready for the real world.”

Bennett, Beal and Smith were all big contributors on the 2021 team, and while several of their teammates moved on to the NFL, the trio decided their best bet was one more season at Georgia. That decision especially paid off for Bennett and Smith, who earned national accolades and attention for their efforts.

Bennett excelled in his final season as Georgia’s starting quarterback — the first full season in which he held that role. By year’s end, Bennett had thrown for 4,127 yards with 27 touchdowns, won the Burlsworth Trophy as the nation’s top player who was at one point a walk-on, and went to New York City as Georgia’s first Heisman Trophy finalist since 1992. Smith earned unanimous All-American status with his play, and by year’s end he had recorded 61 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 5 pass break-ups, 3 interceptions and 1 sack.

Beal was no slouch himself and contributed at outside linebacker — especially after senior Nolan Smith was lost for the season in late October. By year’s end, Beal had 26 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

All three players contributed to Georgia’s beatdown of TCU on Monday night.

Bennett once again earned Offensive MVP honors — something he earned in all four playoff games he played in the last two years — after throwing for 304 yards and scoring 6 total touchdowns. Smith had 3 tackles and forced a fumble, while Beal had 3 tackles, 1 sack and 1 tackle for loss.

For Bennett, the team’s effort boiled down to the work the Bulldogs put in before taking the field Monday.

“We had confidence in the plan. We left some plays that we didn’t even call, and we missed some shots,” Bennett said. “But it’s the last one. I mean, it was the last one in this jersey. It’s for the national championship. It was against Max [Duggan]who is a great quarterback and I know from New York.

“I mean, if you can’t pull out your best in a game like this — or at least your best effort and best preparation — then maybe this isn’t for you.”

Smith explained after the game that the players had talked about doing something that had never been done and going back-to-back in college football’s playoff era. Beal didn’t mince his words on the subject, saying that the fact Georgia has won it all twice has delivered the Bulldogs to legendary status.

Bennett, Smith and Beal all decided it would be beneficial to stay put at Georgia for one more year and see if the Bulldogs could run the table once again. Those hopes became reality on Monday night, leaving the trio with unforgettable memories and another ring to their collections.

“[This final season was] so enjoyable. Any time you’re able to go 15-0 and win a championship — especially doing it with the guys you love — it’s very enjoyable,” Smith said. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to go out.”

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