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Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia redshirt junior quarterback Stetson Bennett IV throws a pass during Saturday night's 27-6 defeat of Auburn. Bennett's Bulldogs host Tennessee this Saturday.

The Southeastern Conference is overrun with unexpected starting quarterbacks.

Wasn't Alabama's Mac Jones supposed to be a safety net in the transition from Tua to Taulia Tagovailoa? Wasn't Florida's Kyle Trask, a backup in high school, expected to occupy that same role during his career with the Gators? And wasn't the preppiest name in the entire league, Georgia's Stetson Bennett IV, penciled for playing time only when the Bulldogs were up five touchdowns in the fourth quarter?

Jones and Trask are soaring now, and Bennett isn't fairing too poorly either after guiding the Bulldogs to a 27-6 dumping of longtime rival Auburn this past Saturday night inside Sanford Stadium in his first career start.

"What's unique about Stetson is the guy handled everything the right way," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "He was not getting a lot of reps early in camp, and to his credit, he took a lot of value in the reps he did get. He was like a pro third-string quarterback. He came and saw me a couple of times and wanted to know where he was and why he wasn't getting a lot of reps.

"We talked endlessly about it as an offensive staff, and it wasn't a clear-cut deal. All he did in scrimmages was just move the ball with the threes, and it's hard to measure that, because you can discount it with it being the threes. He didn't cry, pout, leave or transfer. He just kept working and working, and when he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it."

Bennett, an unassuming 5-foot-11, 190-pound redshirt junior from Blackshear, Georgia, completed 17 of 28 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers, guiding Georgia to the first victory in a top-10 showdown this season. The first drive for the Bulldogs consisted of three plays for minus-6 yards due to a pair of false-start penalties in punt formation, but the former walk-on quickly took control, leading Georgia to 258 yards in its next four possessions and a 24-0 lead.

Georgia checked the box on every successful offensive metric, compiling 442 total yards, converting 9-of-14 third-down opportunities, and wearing Auburn down by controlling the ball for more than 34 minutes.

"They were able to run the football, and when you're able to do that, you get your play-actions going," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We had a time or two where we had some pressure on him, but he did a good job of managing the game and made some good throws."

Bennett was a walk-on member of Georgia's 2017 SEC championship team but left Athens following the 2018 G-Day spring game and played that season at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi, where he threw for 1,840 yards and 16 touchdowns and guided his team to a 10-2 record. He rejoined the Bulldogs in January 2019 as a scholarship player and served last season as Jake Fromm's backup, getting mop-up duty in five of 14 games.

Fromm elected in January to bypass his senior season for the NFL draft, but Bennett headed south on the depth chart when Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman and Southern California transfer JT Daniels were welcomed by both Smart and new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Newman elected in early September to opt out of this season, but then redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathis became the shining star leading up to the Arkansas opener on Sept. 26.

"My goal was always to start here," Bennett said, "and that's why I came here in the first place instead of taking the smaller offer, where I probably could have started earlier."

Mathis got the nod at Arkansas but struggled, so Bennett was inserted early in the second quarter and responded with a 20-of-29 showing for 211 yards and a touchdown in Georgia's eventual 37-10 runaway. His 20 completions against the Razorbacks matched last season's total.

Being a "game manager" is often viewed as a negative, but nobody is down on Bennett, who has yet to be intercepted this season.

"What always stood out to me was that whatever was thrown at him, he would attack it," receiver Kearis Jackson said. "He's a starting quarterback now and has a major role, and he has been doing a great job. He is very confident back there."

Said running back Zamir White: "He goes out there and loves the game. We love him, and the crowd loves him."

Georgia is moving on to this week's top-15 clash, as the No. 3 Bulldogs host No. 14 Tennessee. Smart did not reveal his starting quarterback leading up to the first two games, but that is no longer the case.

"He's not surprising me," Smart said. "I can recall the day we decided to offer him to take him back. We had to fight and scratch and claw to get him to come back, and I'm certainly glad we did. It was an interesting decision, because we had an interesting dynamic on our team, and we felt like he would be a good player and a productive player. Stetson has never lacked confidence in himself, and I'm happy for him.

"I want to temper that enthusiasm, though, because he knows he has to get better. People around him played well, but he did a good job of understanding what we wanted to do in the game, and he executed that really well. We think that right now he's the guy."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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