Stetson Bennett-Georgia football-UGA football
Georgia QB Stetson Bennett , who was named the Offensive MVP of the 2021 Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., will need to run effectively against Alabama for the Bulldogs to win the CFP Championship Game. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

Stetson Bennett tops list of Georgia football X-factors in CFP Championship Game against Alabama

ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart stiff-armed the notion that Monday night’s CFP Championship Game is a matchup of him against Alabama coach Nick Saban.

The matchup, Smart said, will be on the field between the players when the Bulldogs (13-1) face the Crimson Tide (13-1) at 8 p.m. on Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“It’s about those guys making plays and putting them in a position to be successful and the guys that make the meaningful plays,” Smart said, “the plays that are conversions -- the red areas, the turnovers or not turnovers, the explosive plays that determines the outcomes of games, not Saban and I.”

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Close games like the one expected between Georgia and Alabama — UGA is a 3-point favorite — typically come down to four or five big plays. The saying that “big-time players make big-time plays in big games” is derived from this big-play theory.

Quarterbacks, by nature of their role touching the ball on each offensive snap, are obviously key in each outing,

But Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett can be more than just a game manager at quarterback, and will likely have to be more than a caretaker for Georgia to win.

1. Stetson Bennett’s ability to run

The first and important X-factor for the Bulldogs is what Bennett does when the primary play breaks down.

Bennett is at his best in the play-action game, but Alabama’s defense has shown it can neutralize the Georgia run game efficiency and put the Bulldogs in third-and-long situations. UGA was 3-of-12 on third downs in the last meeting.

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Bennett has scrambled on 18 third-down plays against SEC and CFP competition this season, gaining 7 first downs while suffering 6 sacks and coming up short of first-down yardage on 5 occasions.

“His feet have been a blessing for us,” Smart said last month. “He made a couple poor decisions in the last game, but he is not the only one that did that.”

The Georgia QB can make good decisions by using his running ability to combat the Alabama pass rush and disguised coverages that have led to 5 Bennett interceptions in the past two meetings.

Bennett’s single-game rushing high is 41 yards against Auburn this season, which included his career-long run of 30 yards.

2. Brock Bowers’ health

The freshman tight end has emerged as one of the most reliable and impressive receivers in the nation, ranking as one of three finalists for the FWAA Freshman of the Year after beating out Alabama WR Jameson Williams for SEC Newcomer of the Year.

Smart disclosed this week that Bowers has been dealing with a shoulder injury all season, and that it was aggravated in the 41-24 loss to the Tide on Dec. 4. The injury led to Georgia pulling out Bowers in the second half of a 34-11 Orange Bowl win over Michigan.

RELATED: Nick Saban works to keep Alabama coaches ahead of Kirby Smart

Bowers was targeted 16 times in the last meeting between the teams, pulling down 10 catches for 139 yards (a team-high 53 yards after the catch) along with a touchdown.

Bennett looked for Bowers often an early against Michigan, too, hooking up with him three times on the opening scoring drive, including the first touchdown of the game.

Coach Nick Saban was singing Browers’ praises this week

“I think this guy is one of the premier players in college football,” Saban said. “I know everybody always knows the passes he catches, but also a really good blocker and does a good job in his part of executing whatever he needs to do to help his teammates have success as well.”

3. The Georgia pass rush

The Bulldogs had 8 QB hurries against Alabama the last time the teams met, but they were held without a sack for the first time this season, and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young made them pay.

Smart surmised that Young “got to us before we could get to him.”

Young is arguably the best in recent college football history at extending plays with his feet and making accurate downfield throws off the run, and that was the difference in the teams’ last meeting as he set SEC records for passing (421) and total yards (461) against the Bulldogs.

RELATED: Nolan Smith leaves no doubt, Georgia ready to finish the job on Bama

Smart isn’t going to change the Georgia approach — the Bulldogs will come after Young again, even while Smart knows the Alabama quarterback is among the most elusive.

“I think you’ve got to affect their quarterback, you’ve got to get to him and finish, and he’s so good at avoiding rush that he buys time with his mobility to make plays downfield,” Smart said.

“He keeps his eyes downfield with the rush, where a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t do that.”

A more effective pass rush plays into the ability of the secondary to do its job better by setting up longer down and distance situations, as well as reducing the amount of time necessary in coverage.

Smart lamented that the secondary came up short last time.

“We had two or three third downs where we have a bust and cut a guy loose, and we haven’t done that all year,” Smart said.

“When you’re in man coverage and you cut a guy loose, that’s not typical of us. Now, they may beat you. They beat us on several man coverages, and I can take that, but when you cut a guy loose, you can’t do that. When you get these guys in third down, you’ve got to get off the field.”

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