Dawgs’ Bennett invited to Heisman ceremony; Vols’ Hooker staying home

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) after Georgia’s win in the 2022 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Nearing the end of Georgia's news conference Saturday night following its 50-30 victory over LSU at the Southeastern Conference championship game, Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart was asked if there was a certain undefeated quarterback he might consider lobbying for a certain individual award.

Stetson Bennett reached over to Smart as if to say no response was necessary, but Smart was already unloading his answer.

"Well, absolutely," Smart said. "I mean, this guy was 23 of 29, and he didn't get to do a whole lot in the second half. He has played really well. I've had several people come up to me and say they thought he played the best game of his career tonight.

"He played really good."

So good, in fact, that the sixth-year senior and former walk-on is headed to New York City later this week as a Heisman Trophy finalist, where he will be accompanied by three other quarterbacks -- Southern California's Caleb Williams, TCU's Max Duggan and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud. Williams is the decided favorite for the award, with Duggan having the second best odds as of Monday evening and Bennett third.

While Bennett's numbers aren't nearly as dazzling as the other three finalists, he has been plenty effective by completing 269 of 395 attempts (68.1%) for 3,425 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. Bennett's chief strength has been his performances on key stages, as his 176.40 efficiency rating in only those games against FBS teams with winning records is the best in the country.

And in the most simplest of stats, Bennett is the only Heisman finalist who won his last game -- let alone his last 14 dating back to last season's topping of Alabama for the national championship.

"I don't even know what to think right now," Bennett said Monday night through a released statement. "We have a lot of good players who make me look good. It's special. This honor is all about my teammates and this team. I wouldn't be here if we didn't have the team that we have.

"I understand what Coach Smart means when he says that success comes to those who don't look for it or are too busy working to look for it. I have never thought about the Heisman. I just wanted to play quarterback at Georgia."

Hours after being named a Heisman finalist, Bennett won the Burlsworth Award as college football's most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on.

The Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, and finalists were first invited in 1982, when Georgia running back Herschel Walker won the honor after finishing third in the 1980 balloting and second in 1981. Quarterback Frank Sinkwich became Georgia's first Heisman winner back in 1942, and the program's only Heisman finalist between Walker and Bennett was running back Garrison Hearst in 1992.

Missing out on the invitation to New York City was Tennessee sixth-year quarterback Hendon Hooker, who earlier Monday was named by the Associated Press as the SEC's offensive player of the year and as the first-team quarterback. Alabama's Bryce Young, who won last year's Heisman, was the SEC second-team quarterback.

Hooker only played 11 games due to the torn ACL he suffered late in the Nov. 19 loss at South Carolina, but he completed 229 of 329 passes (69.6%) for 3,135 yards with 27 touchdowns and two interceptions. His 175.51 efficiency rating ranks second nationally to Stroud's 176.25, and he helped conquer five ranked teams -- Pittsburgh, Florida, LSU, Alabama and Kentucky.

Williams and Stroud are tied for the national lead with 37 touchdowns, while Duggan has 30 aerial scores and leads all the finalists with 404 rushing yards.

The winner of the 88th Heisman Trophy will be revealed Saturday night on ESPN. Heisman ballots had to be electronically returned Monday afternoon by the 929 electors, which included 870 media members, 58 former Heisman winners and one via a fan vote.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.