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Stetson Bennett hopes to celebrate 25th birthday with Florida victory

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Bennett’s father not considering that 3 might still be playing football at 25 would mean that 4 harbored some sliver of doubt about his son’s potential. And doubt is a word that simply doesn’t get used within the Bennett household.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s playing football for a good while longer after this year,” the elder Bennett asserted. “We’ll just have to see, I guess.”

Point taken. Actually, there are two points there: One, it’s somewhat surprising that Bennett is playing college football at the age of 25; and, two, Stetson Bennett not only is playing to win for the Bulldogs this season, he’s playing to prove he deserves to be playing beyond this season.

To this point, Bennett has done nothing to devalue his professional football stock. In fact, there’s no reason to think it has done anything but increase in the nine months since Georgia won the national championship – starting with having led the Bulldogs to that title.

Bennett enters Saturday’s game against Florida (4-3, 1-3 SEC) here in Jacksonville still leading a No. 1-ranked Georgia team (7-0, 4-0). And while there’s some who will tell you that the Bulldogs won the 2021 title despite having a 5-foot-11, 190-pound athlete at quarterback, Bennett’s making case for Georgia winning this season because of what he’s doing at the position.

Bennett currently leads the SEC in completion percentage at 70.74. Now a starter for two-plus seasons, he currently ranks third among active players in career offensive yards per play (8.37), which is on pace to unseat Aaron Murray for the school record (7.69). He carries a 21-3 record as Georgia’s starting quarterback, a number that would be 22-3 had he not had to come off the bench to rescue the Bulldogs in the first quarter of the first game of the 2020 season against Arkansas.

Accordingly, Georgia’s offense has flourished. Tennessee (50.1 ppg) and Alabama (43.1) are ahead of Georgia in scoring offense (41.7). They also lead the SEC and are No. 2 nationally in the obscure but very important statistic of points per drive (3.13). In other words, Georgia is scoring almost every time it has the football.

The pro football ranks have taken notice. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, appearing on “The Paul Finebaum Show” earlier this season, said scouts are talking about how Bennett seems “bigger, stronger, more aggressive and more decisive” this season. They’re noting that his passes are thrown with “more juice.”

“I love players like that,” McShay said. “Players who have kind of fought all of the adversity, have overcome everything.”

Bennett still has a few more things to overcome. That starts Saturday with the Florida Gators.

The Bulldogs are 1-1 against the Gators with Bennett under center. In his two games at TIAA Bank Field, Bennett has completed only 42.9% of 35 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. The Bulldogs won 34-7 last year and lost 44-28 in 2020.

That 2020 defeat has to come with a bold-faced asterisk. Bennett injured his throwing shoulder on a hit just as he delivered a touchdown pass to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint that gave the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter. Bennett would try to continue but eventually was sidelined for the rest of the game, as well as the next several weeks. Rosemy-Jacksaint also suffered a broken leg on the 32-yard touchdown and Georgia eventually lost 44-28.

“I got smoked,” Bennett recalled of the play earlier this week. “We slid the protection left and they came from the right. That was the play that me and Marcus both got hurt. We were rolling. That was a tough injury, a tough touchdown play, was what that was.”

Bennett suffered a similar injury this season, though not nearly as severe. He was brought down hard on the shoulder on a running play against Missouri. Bennett never came out of the game and hasn’t missed any time since, but he acknowledged that there were some effects.

“(Against) Auburn, I was a little shaky,” Bennett said. “Going into Vandy, it felt like I was healing up a bit and I feel better now. The bye week helped out. I’ll try not to do that this year because I thought I snapped my collarbone in half it hurt so bad.”

Keeping Bennett healthy will be a priority in Saturday’s contest, in which the Bulldogs enter as three-touchdown favorites. While the Gators sit near the bottom of the SEC in scoring (28.1 ppg) and total defense (429.3 ypg), they’re decent at getting after the quarterback. They’ve averaged 1.86 sacks per game. Outside linebacker Amari Burney leads the way with four and defensive end Brenton Cox – a former Bulldog – has two.

Cox was a 5-star prospect when he signed with Georgia out of Stockbridge in 2018.

“There’s good and bad to that, the whole fan base knowing me,” Cox said this week. “The Bulldogs are wishing for our downfall. All you can do is take it with a grain of salt and keep moving.”

As for the Florida rivalry, there is no more important game to Bennett and his family. He grew up 80 miles north of TIAA Bank Field in Blackshear. Bennett’s parents attended every year, though “4″ wasn’t allowed to come with them until he was well into his teens.

“It could be a little like Sodom and Gomorrah down there,” said Bennett’s father, a longtime UGA season-ticket holder. “We didn’t let him go there or to LSU for a long time. I think he finally went to Florida with us when he was teenager, and then we were down and back the same day. For us, it was a home game.”

Getting around to the initial point of the conversation, Bennett’s father wasn’t yet aware of any special commemorations for his son’s 25th birthday. Since it happened to fall on the night before the Florida game, Bennett’s time is fully spoken for embedded with his teammates at the team hotel and going over last-minute game-planning and play-script refining.

Meanwhile, the Bennett family will be later than usual arriving in Jacksonville. They’ve been with their daughter Olivia at the state softball tournament in Columbus. Like the other Bennett children – Luke is a walk-on wideout for the Bulldogs, Knox plays baseball at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College – Olivia is also an exceptional athlete. Eventually, they’ll all get around to acknowledging Bennett IV’s birthday. But there were no hard and fast plans entering the weekend

“We’ll just have to see,” Bennett’s father said. “He’s 25 and a male, I don’t think he’s real worried about celebrating his birthday. It’ll be whatever he wants it to be.”

A victory over the Gators on Saturday would be a nice candle on his cake.

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