Defensive tackle Michael Bennett doesn't have to pinch himself anymore to realize where he and Ohio State stand, six days away from facing Oregon in the first College Football Playoff championship game. Reality certainly has set in.

Defensive tackle Michael Bennett doesn't have to pinch himself anymore to realize where he and Ohio State stand, six days away from facing Oregon in the first College Football Playoff championship game.

Reality certainly has set in.

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"Maybe after the Wisconsin game, I was trying to pinch (myself)," Bennett said of a 59-0 victory in the Big Ten championship game. "I'm just telling you guys the truth now - we're already in the national championship game. I don't have to pinch anything. It is what it is. We're going to play a great team, and we are a great team. So it's going to be a great battle."

Heading into the championship game Monday in Arlington, Texas, the senior has played a major role in the surge.

Bennett made two sacks against Wisconsin and then made one in a 42-35 victory over Alabama on Thursday in the Sugar Bowl. Along with defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, Bennett pressed the issue on the inside against two of the more physical offensive lines in the nation.

Coach Urban Meyer summed up Bennett's career and recent rise.

"Mike Bennett, who was a guy that has always had the talent, is a great kid, great family but never flipped the switch, and he's flipped it," Meyer said.

Bennett thought he was playing pretty hard all along but agrees there has been a recent uptick. Perhaps he was inspired to do so.

He was stunned by the death of his friend and teammate Kosta Karageorge. The first-year walk-on defensive lineman, a fifth-year senior who had been an OSU wrestler, disappeared the Wednesday before the Michigan game and was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in a dumpster a half-block from his apartment the Sunday after the game.

Bennett, a pallbearer for Karageorge, switched his jersey number from 63 to 53 in honor of Karageorge for the Wisconsin game. He wore it again against Alabama.

"That one was for you Kosta," Bennett tweeted soon after the Sugar Bowl. "This next one will be too."

Bennett is being propelled by several inspirational forces, including the realization that this is his last ride as a Buckeye.

"I don't know exactly what the change was; everybody's got to grow up some time," Bennett said. "I think my teammates have been a huge part of that, just because of the way they're playing and the way I trust them now, so I can be a lot more free, and I can lead them and they can follow, and they can lead, as well.

"It's just such a give and take rather than a feeling like, 'OK, I've got to take care of all of this by myself,' or just kind of like not caring too much and looking forward to the future. It's much more living in the moment and appreciating where you are and who you're doing it with."

All he knows is that transformation was a gradual process.

"I don't know, I can't tell you because I felt like I was this way the whole season, and just got a chance and started playing better," Bennett said. "But, obviously, something changed."

tmay@dispatch.com

@TIM_MAYsports