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Stetson Bennett IV gives Georgia best chance to take down Alabama



BLACKSHEAR, Ga. — When Stetson Bennett III moved his family from suburban Atlanta to southeast Georgia in the summer of 2004, he took his eldest son and namesake to see the small town’s high school football stadium while they waited for moving trucks to arrive.

“Daddy, it’s a little small,” Stetson Bennett IV said.

“Yeah, but they’ll have to make it bigger when you get here,” his father told him.

Stetson Bennett IV was in the first grade.

While the stage might have seemed small in Brantley County back then, Bennett IV couldn’t ask for a bigger one on Saturday night. He has unexpectedly become Georgia’s starting quarterback and will lead the No. 3 Bulldogs in a nationally televised game at No. 2 Alabama.

“No, I don’t think it could get any bigger until Dec. 19,” Bennett IV said, referring to the scheduled date for the SEC championship game in Atlanta. “It’s going to be pretty big Saturday.”

Bennett IV’s circuitous route from lightly recruited high school prospect to preferred walk-on to junior college and then back to Georgia occurred because most college coaches believed he was too small to succeed at the FBS level.

Despite leading Pierce County High School to three consecutive state playoff appearances and throwing for 3,724 yards, running for 500 and scoring 40 total touchdowns as a senior, his only FBS scholarship offer came from Middle Tennessee State. FCS programs such as Mercer, Samford, Harvard and Princeton wanted him, but FBS coaches thought he was too short and too light.

“When you grow up in a little small town in Georgia, it’s hard to be seen,” his father said. “Even when you are, it’s easy to be discounted.”

Bennett III did everything in his control to make sure his son had a chance at following his dream to play big-time college football. While his new pharmacy was being built in Nahunta, Georgia, which is about 80 miles northwest of Jacksonville, Florida, he leveled an adjoining lot for a football field.

The field was only 80 yards long; one of the end zones would have been in the middle of Highway 82 if it were the full 100 yards. Orange construction fences prevented footballs (and players) from bounding into traffic.

Bennett III purchased two 53-foot shipping containers, cut off one side of each, and had them welded together. The “Hideout” sat behind his pharmacy, and it’s where Bennett IV and his Brantley Bandits teammates gathered nearly every day.

“I walked the halls of the elementary school recruiting kids to play,” his father said. “It didn’t matter if he was 30 pounds or 80, I told him he looked like he was going to be a football player.”

After school, the players gathered at the Hideout for snacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk, a 15-minute devotional, tutoring and homework, and then a workout and practice. There were shelves for the players to hang their equipment, along with two referee shirts and a pair of whistles.

Bennett III and other coaches lined the field with 10-yard lines and hash marks. One thing missing: a chain gang. If a kickoff was returned to the 32-yard line, the possession started at the 30-yard line. If the next pass went 14 yards, it was backed up to the 40. The local rules often left opponents scratching their heads.

During game week, Bennett III hung a banner promoting the game from his pharmacy, and it wasn’t unusual for 100 people or so to show up.

During Bennett IV’s seventh-grade season in 2010, the Brantley Bandits played a 34-game schedule, including three games in one day. They finished 32-2.

“Gosh, that would be crazy to do now,” Bennett IV said. “We traveled all over the place.”

As an eighth-grader, Bennett IV sat in the Pierce County High School team’s quarterback meetings and broke down film with head coach Sean Pender. That same season, after he threw for 455 yards against a rival school’s JV team, the varsity coach told his dad, “That boy is for real. I’ve never seen a performance like that. He can throw it in a mailbox.”

The legend of the “Mailman” was born. A year or two later, a Pierce County High teammate, whose father was mayor of a nearby town, gave Bennett IV a U.S. Postal Service hat.

“We started calling him the Mailman,” said Kole Kicklighter, one of his teammates in high school. “He liked it and everybody else liked it, so it stuck.”

Bennett IV wore the blue Postal Service hat in an attempt to stand out at 7-on-7 tournaments and college camps.

Still, the Power 5 scholarship offer that he desperately wanted never came.

“Sometimes I just didn’t really understand it because I was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure I’m better than these guys, and I think I’m smarter than them and faster than them,'” Bennett IV said. “I really didn’t know what was going on. I guess you just get used to it and then just say, ‘Well, you’ve just got to show them sometimes.'”

Pender, who played for Hal Mumme at Valdosta State, said height was the only reason his quarterback wasn’t more heavily recruited.

“He was always smaller, maybe 5 feet, 9 inches as a sophomore,” Pender said. “He had a live arm and was fast, witty and had a gunslinger’s mentality. He wouldn’t dwell on mistakes and moved on. He just has that knack. You can tell some kids have that ‘it’ factor. He has it.”

His father and mother, Denise, both attended Georgia, and he grew up attending Bulldogs games. UGA’s coaches didn’t seem interested, either.

That changed when Georgia signee Richard LeCounte told Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart about the fleet-footed quarterback. LeCounte had played against Bennett IV and Stanford commitment Davis Mills (Greater Atlanta Christian), who was rated the country’s top quarterback by at least two recruiting services in 2016.

“Davis Mills might be the best quarterback in the country,” LeCounte told Smart, according to Stetson Bennett III, “but he’s only second best in Class AAA. I’ve played against both, and Stetson Bennett is better.”

Bennett joined the Bulldogs as a preferred walk-on and ran the scout-team offense while redshirting in 2017. He drew praise from Georgia’s defense after mimicking Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in preparation for playing Oklahoma in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl.

“Stetson Bennett is a beast, man,” then-defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said at the time. “He puts a lot of pressure on our defense because he is extremely quick, he’s fast and he can throw. He can throw in the pocket and he can throw on the run and he’s very, very competitive.”

Then-Bulldogs linebacker Lorenzo Carter, now with the New York Giants, said Bennett IV made him and current Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith “look silly” in Rose Bowl practices.

“He’s a quick guy,” Carter said. “He can outrun a lot of people. He’s made Roquan look silly; he’s made me look silly. He’s made a lot of people look silly.”

Yet, when Georgia signed highly regarded freshman Justin Fields to compete with returning starter Jake Fromm the next season, Bennett IV could see the writing on the wall. He transferred to Jones College in Ellisville, Mississippi, where he threw for 1,840 yards with 16 touchdowns in 2018.

Bennett IV was set to sign with Louisiana when Pender called him, shortly after Fields announced he was transferring to Ohio State.

“Would you go back to Georgia if they’ll have you?” Pender asked him.

“Yes,” Bennett IV said. “But it has to be different this time.”

Pender had become friendly with then-Bulldogs offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who was recruiting Warren McClendon from Brunswick High School on the Georgia coast, where Pender is now coaching. Pender helped reunite Bennett IV with the Bulldogs.

“I think that’s what it was — just to have a chance this time to compete for the starting job,” Bennett IV said.

Last season, Bennett IV played in five games behind Fromm, attempting 27 passes with two touchdowns. When Fromm left early for the NFL draft, the Bulldogs brought in two transfers — Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman and USC’s JT Daniels — to compete to replace him.

Bennett IV seemed like the odd man out once again. In fact, a couple of weeks before the start of preseason camp in August, new offensive coordinator Todd Monken told him as much.

“It was frustrating, but I just kept my head down and kept working and trying to prove them wrong,” Bennett IV said. “I wanted to make sure whenever my number was called, I would be ready to go.”

On Sept. 2, Newman announced that he was opting out of the season because of concerns about the coronavirus. Daniels, who had missed all but one game at USC last season because of a knee injury, still hadn’t been medically cleared to play. Bennett IV and redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis were left to compete for the starting job.

The Bulldogs went with Mathis in the Sept. 26 opener at Arkansas, but he looked overwhelmed while completing 8 of 17 passes for 55 yards with one interception. Bennett IV came off the bench and threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns on 20-for-29 passing, leading Georgia to a 37-10 win.

“Stetson is confident. He’s confident in himself, and he’s a competitor,” offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer said. “Stets goes out there and gives it everything he’s got every day. He doesn’t like to lose. You can just see that on the job when he came in at Arkansas.”

Bennett IV threw for 240 yards with one score in a 27-6 victory over then-No. 7 Auburn the next week, and then had 238 passing yards with three total touchdowns in a 44-21 win over then-No. 14 Tennessee last week.

In three games, he is completing 63.1% of his attempts with five touchdowns and no interceptions. His Total QBR of 93.1 ranks third among FBS players, behind Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Alabama’s Mac Jones.

“I honestly think he’s just himself,” Smart said. “He doesn’t try to be someone else. He doesn’t try to artificially lead or fake it. He never did that while he was trying to compete for the job and he hasn’t done it since he got the job. Stetson is who he is, and I think the skill players on offense, the offensive line, they all trust him and rally around him because they know he understands what we’re trying to do offensively and he can put them in good situations.”

On Saturday night, in a game that might very well impact the SEC championship and CFP races, Bennett IV will face his most difficult test on the biggest stage yet.

It will be a long way from that tiny football stadium in southeast Georgia.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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