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Georgia shows off Bulldog mentality in beating Alabama for first title since 1980

Nancy Armour
USA TODAY

Telling an athlete to have a short memory, to forget that godawful last play or that embarrassing last loss, is easy. Actually doing it, now that's a different story -- especially when there’s a national championship on the line.

Unless you're Stetson Bennett, that is. 

Shaking off the fumble that could have doomed Georgia’s chances for its first national title in 41 years, he uncorked a 40-yard TD pass on the very next drive.

"There was going to be no way I was going to let a turnover like that stop us from winning a national championship," said Bennett, who was named the offensive player of the game. "I wasn’t going to let that happen. I wasn’t going to be the reason we lost."

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Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett celebrates as the Bulldogs beat Alabama to win the College Football Playoff championship.

Bennett threw for another touchdown for good measure on Georgia’s drive after that and, in a bit of poetic irony, Kelee Ringo had a pick-six to finish off the 33-18 victory over Alabama on Monday night.

It was Georgia's first national title since 1981, when Herschel Walker and the Bulldogs capped their undefeated season with a 17-10 victory over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. 

Georgia was in the national championship game four years ago, only to lose to Alabama in overtime

"That one was with me for a long time," said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who had never before beaten mentor Nick Saban. 

"This one will be with me for much longer."

And this game will be remembered for its frenzied and fabulous finish. Thankfully, because it was a dud for much of the first three quarters. 

College football’s showcase has gotten stale, with the same few teams showing up and the games ending in blowouts the last few years. This was supposed to be better, a matchup of the two best teams from the best conference.

For Bennett and the Bulldogs, it also offered a chance for redemption. 

They had been the country's top team for much of the regular season, edging Clemson in the season opener and then bulldozing their way to the top of the SEC East. But Alabama made them – and Bennett in particular – look less than one-dimensional in the SEC title game last month. 

Bennett threw two interceptions in that game, one occurring in the red zone and the other resulting in a pick-six for the Crimson Tide. 

"Life’s tough," said Bennett, who grew up dreaming of playing for Georgia. "Just got to fight through it."

His entire career is a testament to that. 

Overlooked by just about everyone out of high school, Bennett walked on at Georgia and ran the scout squad. When he saw that he was never going to be considered as a starter, he left, transferring to a junior college. 

A year later, he was back, only to be passed over time and time and time again. He only worked his way into the starting lineup this season because JT Daniels was hurt, and even then fans grumbled about him.

After the SEC championship, those grumbles turned into full-throated roars. 

But Bennett has an unshakeable belief in himself -- "I think I'm the best quarterback," he said Monday -- and not even his fumble, which Alabama turned into a quick, go-ahead TD, could shake it.

"That was just football," Bennett said. "I put my head down and said, `That's not going to be how we lose this game.'"

Showing that his confidence had not been broken, he opened Georgia's next drive with an 18-yard completion. Three plays later, he found a streaking Adonai Mitchell for the 40-yard score.

"I had to. Had to otherwise we were going to lose," Bennett said. "They capitalized on (the fumble) and I thought, 'I gotta fix this.'"

When Ringo picked off Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young, Bennett didn't see him streak into the end zone because he was sobbing on the sideline. It's the first time in years he can remember shedding tears. 

"It just hit me," he said.

There have been so many setbacks Bennett has had to overcome, and mistakes he's had to erase from his brain. Finally there's a memory he can hang onto, and it's one he and Georgia fans will savor forever.