In the first eight years of the College Football Playoff, Heisman Trophy finalists have only gone head-to-head three times.
Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry led Alabama to a 45-40 win over Deshaun Watson and Clemson in the second CFP national championship game to end the 2015 season. Tua Tagovailoa quarterbacked Alabama to a 45-34 win over Heisman winner Kyler Murray and Oklahoma in the 2018 semifinals. And in 2019, the last time a semifinal was played at the Peach Bowl, Heisman winner Joe Burrow threw all over Oklahoma’s defense in a 63-28 win over Heisman finalist Jalen Hurts and the Sooners.
The fourth CFP matchup between Heisman finalists will take place in this year’s Peach Bowl when Ohio State and CJ Stroud face Georgia and Stetson Bennett in the playoff semifinals.
It’s unlikely either of them will win this year’s Heisman Trophy, which is expected to be claimed by USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the only one of this year’s four finalists (TCU quarterback Max Duggan being the other) who is not on a College Football Playoff team. But both still have a chance to win the sport’s most coveted trophy along with their teammates, and how each of them performs in the Peach Bowl will play an integral role in which of their teams advances to the national championship game – especially in the case of Stroud.
Stroud was always expected to be in New York this weekend as one of this year’s Heisman finalists, and was the favorite to win the award for most of the year until Ohio State’s regular-season-ending loss to Michigan. He – along with his talented stable of pass-catchers led by All-American wideout Marvin Harrison Jr., who arguably deserved to be a Heisman candidate himself – is the biggest reason why Ohio State is in the CFP, as he’s led the way for a passing offense that’s tied for second nationally in touchdown passes (38) and ranks fourth nationally in passing yards per attempt (9.4) and 14th in passing yards per game (294.2).
While Stroud is making history as Ohio State’s first two-time Heisman finalist since the Heisman Trust began naming multiple finalists in 1982, it’s not a surprise to see him in this position. From the time he arrived at Ohio State as a near-five-star recruit in the 2020 class, Stroud was expected to follow in the footsteps of Justin Fields and Dwayne Haskins before him and become Ohio State’s next star quarterback. By earning two invitations to the Heisman ceremony and winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in back-to-back years, Stroud has certainly done that – though his Ohio State legacy would be bolstered significantly if he can lead the Buckeyes to a signature win or two in the CFP.
Georgia’s only loss in the past two years came against last year’s Heisman winner, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who clinched last year’s Heisman by throwing for 421 yards and three touchdowns against the Bulldogs in the 2021 SEC Championship Game. Given that the Bulldogs lead the entire nation in rushing yards allowed per game (76.9), Ohio State might need a similar performance from Stroud to upset the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs’ pass defense will need to be better than it was in their most recent game against LSU, in which they allowed the Tigers to throw for 502 yards, but Kirby Smart and company should be well aware of the threat Stroud presents to their defense , considering they were among the schools that heavily recruited Stroud – hosting him for an official visit less than a month before he signed with Ohio State.
At the time, Georgia probably wouldn’t have guessed Bennett would become a Heisman finalist – or even its starting quarterback. After all, Bennett began his career at Georgia as a walk-on and actually transferred out of Georgia for a year to play at Jones College (a junior college) before transferring back to Georgia in 2019 after Fields transferred to Ohio State. The Bulldogs have brought in several more highly touted quarterbacks since then, including transfers JT Daniels and Jamie Newman and four-star recruit Carson Beck in 2020 and five-star quarterback Brock Vandagriff in 2021.
Bennett didn’t become Georgia’s full-time starting quarterback until midway through last season, but proved his ability to deliver on the biggest stage in last year’s College Football Playoff, in which he completed 66 percent of his passing attempts for 537 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions to lead the Bulldogs to wins over Michigan and Alabama. He’s continued to be efficient throughout the 2022 season, completing 68.1 percent of his passing attempts for 3,425 yards and 20 touchdowns with six interceptions while leading Georgia to a 13-0 record.
Given that Georgia is known more for its rushing offense and defense than its passing game, it’s debatable whether Bennett actually deserves to be a Heisman finalist. Ask talent evaluators who Georgia’s best player is, and you’re more likely to hear names like tight end Brock Bowers or defensive lineman Jalen Carter. While Stroud is projected to be one of the first players selected in the 2023 NFL draft, Bennett isn’t even a sure bet to get drafted, although he is ranked as the 2023 draft’s ninth-best quarterback prospect in Mel Kiper Jr.’s latest rankings.
That said, Bennett’s play has actually been graded higher this year by Pro Football Focus (87.4) than Stroud’s (84.1). While Bennett often gets labeled as a game manager, Smart has said on numerous occasions that he believes his quarterback is much more than that.
“Stetson is one of the least respected good players there is in this country, and guess what? We get to see it every day. The kid is a tremendous athlete, he’s got good arm strength. People just keep doubting him and that’s fine with me,” Smart said before the season at SEC Media Days.
The one-time two-star recruit has captured Ryan Day’s attention, too, with how well he’s played for the Bulldogs.
“Stetson does a great job in all areas,” Day said Sunday after learning Ohio State would play Georgia in the Peach Bowl. “Got a lot of respect for the way he plays.”
Stroud has given Ohio State the advantage at quarterback in just about every game the Buckeyes have played over the past two years, and on paper, the Peach Bowl shouldn’t be an exception. The fact that Bennett will be alongside him on the stage in New York on Saturday night, though, is reason enough for the Buckeyes to take him seriously as a threat to their defense – especially considering Ohio State’s struggles to defend the pass in its final two games of the regular season, which the Buckeyes must improve upon if they’re going to have a good chance to beat Bennett and the Bulldogs.