Athens area native and former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger returns to Sanford Stadium this week wearing LSU’s purple and gold — and to hear some people tell it, the prodigal son will be out to reclaim the birthright that should have been his.
Or some such hogwash.
We all know the history: Aaron Murray and Mettenberger were both highly ranked prospects coming out of high school. I first saw Mettenberger play when he was still at Oconee County High School and was impressed with his size and his arm. He looked like a classic pro-style quarterback prospect, but he was awfully raw and not very mobile. He and Murray, who had come back from a broken leg to lead his high school team to a championship, both enrolled early at UGA, took redshirt seasons while Joe Cox was the starting QB, and then did battle with Logan Gray for the starting spot behind center in the spring of 2010.
The battle mainly was between Murray and Mettenberger, and Mett, who has a good 4 or 5 inches on Murray and a rifle arm, had the better game at G-Day, giving rise to the theory that, had he not been kicked off the team shortly after because of sexual battery charges, he would have been the presumptive starter.
That’s the kind of myth TV networks love, but it flies in the face of the facts. Even before he was cut loose by Mark Richt, Mettenberger already had gotten himself suspended for that fall’s starting game because of an alcohol infraction, and that would have made it unlikely he’d be inserted as starter ahead of Murray in that season’s big second game, against South Carolina. Also, in that G-Day game where he played so well, he was throwing against second-teamers and never got a chance to take a snap with the first team, which was run by Logan and Murray.
Even though Mettenberger was the G-Day star and, as Artie Lynch said at the time, was gifted with “an NFL arm and NFL size,” the smaller but more agile Murray was already the leader in the clubhouse for the starting nod at that point.
At the time, Richt said flatly that even if Mettenberger had stayed on the team, Murray would have been the No. 1 QB. As Richt recalled this week for the Macon Telegraph, “Murray was a little bit more polished in that he was in a high school system that was maybe closer to what we’re doing. Whereas Zach … had some catching up to do in some of those finer points.”
Chances are good that, had Mettenberger not been dismissed from the Georgia team, he and Murray would have wound up facing each other as opponents anyway. Georgia defensive back Blake Sailors, who has known Zach since second grade, said this week that he thinks Mettenberger would have transferred if he hadn’t won the starting job at UGA. And Murray agreed that one of them probably would have left Georgia.
But the Murray bashers who’ve never accepted that he’s even the best QB on the team, much less one of the best in the nation, have cast this Saturday’s Georgia-LSU game as some sort of referendum on the subject, with the admonition that if LSU wins it will prove that Richt made a mistake and picked the wrong quarterback.
They’re probably lifetime members of the Flat Earth Society, too, because they’re in full denial about Murray, who last year ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency, is closing in on the SEC record for touchdown passes, is the SEC’s leading active player in total offensive yards and became the first QB in SEC history to have three consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons.
Meanwhile, Mettenberger played a season at Butler Community College in Kansas and then rode the bench most of the time his first season at LSU before finally becoming the starter last season. He led his team to 10 wins and impressed a lot of folks with his play in a losing effort against Alabama, but he also struggled mightily at times against the stronger defenses the Tigers saw. Mettenberger threw for 2,609 yards and 12 TDs last season while Murray wracked up 3,893 yards and 36 TD passes.
Mett’s playing markedly better this season under a new offensive coordinator, but the toughest opponents LSU has faced so far are TCU and Auburn. Georgia, meanwhile, has already played two Top 10 teams.
So far this season, Mettenberger is second in the SEC in pass efficiency (193.6) and fourth in passing yards per game (256.5). Murray leads the conference in both those categories.
But what about Murray’s troubles in big games, the bashers say, ignoring two consecutive wins over the Gators, his fine performance in a near-win against Bama, and this year’s South Carolina game, when Murray completed 17 of 23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns and was named Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week.
OK, let’s look at big games. Mett and his team beat South Carolina and Texas A&M last season but lost to Florida, Alabama and Clemson. Georgia lost to South Carolina and Alabama. Give Mettenberger a slight edge in comparing the two QB’s performances against the Crimson Tide: He completed 24 of 35 for 298 yards and one touchdown, while Murray completed 18 of 33 for 265 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But Murray’s effort was in the SEC Championship Game and brought the Bulldogs within one play of having a shot at the national championship.
Bottom line: If I were given a choice of which one I could have as my quarterback for the remainder of the season, I’d take Murray over Mettenberger with no hesitation. Murray is by no means a perfect quarterback. He forces the ball into coverage at times and gets antsy when his offensive line isn’t playing well, but he’s still the guy in whose hands I want the ball when the game is on the line — he showed why last year with his second-half comeback against Florida and this year with his nearly perfect game against South Carolina.
Besides, viewing this game as Murray vs. Mettenberger, as many are doing, ignores the many other aspects of the two teams that likely will be factors in which one comes out on top.
You could make just as much of a case that it’s Todd Gurley vs. Jeremy Hill.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg