The Bulldogs are the defending champs. What makes Georgia even better this year?

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) runs toward the end zone for a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Quarterback Stetson Bennett, running for a touchdown against Ohio State in the Peach Bowl, started his career at Georgia as a walk-on who would leave to play in junior college before returning to the Bulldogs and eventually becoming the starter. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

Stetson Bennett’s celebration after Ohio State’s would-be game-winning field goal sailed wide with three seconds remaining — arms spread wide, serious eyes scanning the field as he sprinted off the sideline — bore a strong resemblance to a familiar Russell Crowe meme.

And yes, we were entertained.

Georgia’s 14-point, fourth-quarter comeback over Ohio State in the Peach Bowl capped the best semifinal doubleheader of the College Football Playoff era. Texas Christian emerged as the CFP’s first Cinderella with a thrilling victory over Michigan. Then the clock struck midnight on Ohio State.

Now the Bulldogs are wondering if their own fairy tale can continue at SoFi Stadium on Jan. 9 in the national championship game. Bennett, a former walk-on turned Heisman Trophy finalist, has Georgia in position to become the first repeat national champions in a decade, supplementing the same defense that helped locked down last year’s title with an offense flirting with several school records.

After rolling up 533 yards against Ohio State, the Bulldogs (14-0) are averaging 494.9 yards per game, which is on pace to break the school record of 484.1 in 2013. They needed every yard to outlast Ohio State in a 42-41 shootout.

After the Bulldogs scored with 54 seconds remaining to take a one-point lead, Georgia survived by limiting the Buckeyes to a long field-goal attempt in the waning seconds, completing a fourth quarter without any touchdowns for an Ohio State offense that entered the game as the second-best scoring offense in the country.

Georgia outdueled Ohio State behind a balanced attack. Running backs Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards had 70 and 58 rushing yards, respectively, in five and eight carries. Even without starting tight end Darnell Washington, who exited the game early because of a sprained ankle, six players had more than one catch. Adonai Mitchell, who didn’t have a catch since Sept. 10 against Samford, had three against Ohio State, including the game-tying touchdown before the go-ahead extra point.

“We have so many tools on offense we can utilize, I think coach [Todd] Monken and the staff find good ways of getting everybody the ball,” said Brock Bowers, who won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end after leading the Bulldogs in receiving with 59 catches for 790 yards and six touchdowns. “And it also helps having Stetson.”

The 25-year-old quarterback is the unlikely leader of college football’s current powerhouse. Bennett, almost a real-life version of "Rudy," is a former walk-on whose parents both attended Georgia. Each season provided a cinematic twist as he transferred to Jones College in Mississippi in 2018 to return in 2019, when he was buried on the depth chart behind Jake Fromm.

In 2020, Bennett was the third-string option. He needed Jamie Newman to opt out of the season and D’Wan Mathis, a former four-star prospect, to get benched in the season opener to get his chance. Another top prospect — former USC transfer J.T. Daniels — pushed him out of the starting spot later in the season.

Although Bennett finished the pandemic-shortened campaign as the team’s top passer by attempts and completions, he was behind Daniels on the depth chart again in 2021. He finished it by raising the national championship trophy as the final game’s offensive most valuable player.

“He had a certain view of where he should be as a player and where we thought where he was at that time,” said Monken, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, “and all he’s done is continue to battle and compete and fight like hell to be the starting quarterback at Georgia.”

When he went to junior college, Bennett had no idea that he would return to Georgia. Now, the former scout team quarterback is on pace to set a school record for individual completion percentage at 68.1%, eclipsing Hutson Mason’s record of 67.8% in 2014.

“I had the guts to go chase it,” Bennett said, “and then chase it more once I realized that I’m not there yet.”

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett celebrates after the Peach Bowl win.
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett celebrates after the Peach Bowl win as confetti falls around him. (John Bazemore / Associated Press)

They’re the defending national champions, but the Bulldogs refuse to believe they have arrived. None of the history matters, offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran claimed. The program’s first national championship in 41 years, the undefeated record this season, the record-setting performances are irrelevant.

If none of it mattered, the center was asked, what did?

“Winning the next game.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.