ATHENS – Several weeks ago, when Georgia was looking like Liberty Bowl bait and Mark Richt was waiting for that first thrown rock through his office window, Aaron Murray did something rather unexpected. He prophesied an SEC championship game for the Bulldogs.
We can’t be certain if this should be attributed to Murray’s unwavering confidence or the fact that he had just been hit in the head 37 times by Boise State. But the sophomore quarterback walked out of the Georgia locker room after the Bulldogs had just laid a 35-21 egg against Boise State at the Georgia Dome to open the season, met up with his former high school coach and uttered these words: “Coach, we’re going to the SEC championship.”
At that point, Robert Weiner, Murray’s coach at Plant High School resisted temptations to alert medical personnel who might still in the Georgia Dome. He had seen this side of Murray before, like when the quarterback was sprawled on the field with an apparent broken ankle during his senior season at Plant and he told Weiner, “Get me ready for the second half.” (Didn’t happen. But Murray made it back from a four-month injury in seven weeks, in time for the playoffs.)
So how did Weiner respond to Murray’s comment?
“I just said, ‘Alright, Aaron,’” he said, laughing. “I wasn’t too sure. But I’ve seen what Aaron can do. With most people, you blow off a comment like that as blind optimism. But Aaron started going through the rest of the schedule with specifics on each game. He said, ‘You’re coming back here to the Georgia Dome at the end of the year to see us.’ I guess he was prophetic.”
Murray said he felt confident because he saw talent and heart. “We just weren’t ready for that game yet,” he said.
When asked about his prediction, he said, “Based on how we played that game, I would’ve thought I was crazy, too.”
One 10-game winning streak later, Bellevue is firmly in the rearview mirror.
The Bulldogs are 13-point underdogs to unbeaten LSU in Saturday’s SEC championship game. Murray is the X-factor. He has been great lately and he will have to be great against LSU because there’s no guarantee of a decent running attack with the hobbled Isaiah Crowell.
But his strength is his calm demeanor. At 0-2, the house was burning down and Murray was brushing the ashes off his jersey. All Georgia players get credit for not caving early, but the quarterback is the one in the middle of the huddle.
“I understand that even though I’m only a sophomore, there are players who are looking at me,” Murray said. “When you play the quarterback position you have to stay even-tempered.”
Weiner, who drilled that into him, said, “I never doubt two things about Aaron: His will to win and his ability to mobilize the people around him.”
That’s how football teams win 10 straight after losing two. The Dogs didn’t suddenly become faster or stronger. But they grew up and found ways to win. Murray battled some consistency problems earlier this season but leadership and resolve never were problems.
Said Richt, “If things are going rough and your quarterback spits the bit, you’re in big trouble. But if you can stand in a gap and stay strong and keep fighting, your quarterback can pull you out of a bad situation. Nobody questions Aaron’s toughness, mentally or physically. No one questions his dedication. He’s got everybody’s respect.”
Murray is likely to be a four-year starter. By the time he leaves Athens, he’ll likely own every career passing mark at the school. But he said earlier this week, “Championships [are] all that matters. My goal is to win a few while I’m here, and my first one, my first opportunity, is this weekend.”
The odds are long. But the odds were long on Georgia getting here. To most people, anyway.
By Jeff Schultz