ATHENS -- Aaron Murray isn’t talking to the media this week, but plenty of people are talking about him.
One of the top conversation pieces in advance of Saturday’s SEC Championship game is the matchup of Georgia’s Murray vs. Alabama’s AJ McCarron — quarterbacks who rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation, respectively, in passing efficiency.
“The quarterback position, with two great defenses, will determine who wins this game,” ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer, a former Florida quarterback, said on air.
No one doubts second-year starter McCarron’s ability to win a mega-game. He was the offensive Most Valuable Player of last season’s BCS title-game victory over LSU, and in this season’s rematch with the Tigers he calmly led the Crimson Tide on a 72-yard touchdown drive to win the game at the end.
Murray does not have that type of big-game resume, leaving open to discussion the question of whether he can step up against an elite defense such as Alabama’s. Against the two best defenses Georgia has faced so far this season, Murray completed 11 of 31 passes for 109 yards in a loss to South Carolina and 12 of 24 for 150 yards (with three first-half interceptions) in a win over Florida.
By all accounts, he’ll have to do better than that for Georgia to upset Alabama and secure a spot in the national-title game.
Alabama coach Nick Saban “makes you play NFL-style football against them. Your quarterback has to complete passes,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “When you do it, like (LSU’s Zach) Mettenberger did or (Texas A&M’s) Johnny Manziel did, they’re vulnerable. But if you don’t have a quarterback who can do it, forget it; you have no chance.”
For all of Murray’s gaudy numbers — 9,399 yards passing and 89 touchdown passes in three seasons as Georgia’s starting quarterback — he no doubt would be asked about his lack of signature victories if he were entertaining questions from the media this week. Normally one of the team’s more accessible players, Murray opted to skip interviews.
Coach Mark Richt said Murray needed to complete “two big papers” for his graduate-level psychology classes and then wanted to “submerge himself into film study” and focus on Alabama.
“I know this one means so much to him,” said Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson, a close friend of Murray’s. “This is the biggest game of our career.”
Murray got a flurry of questions about signature victories before the Florida game, which turned out to be Georgia’s first win in three years over a top-10 opponent.
“I don’t even think about it, really,” Murray said at the time. “It’s a team game. I’m not playing … any top team all by myself.”
Certainly, many other factors will help shape Saturday’s game. But none will get more analysis than Murray vs. McCarron.
“No quarterback ever has success without the help of his teammates,” Richt said. “But quarterback play, as we all know, is very crucial.
“Guys can get in the middle of a game and make some great plays, but guys can get in the middle of a game, try to do too much, put their teams in a bad situation. … I think everybody is going to have to be a little bit patient in this game (with) two really fine defenses playing.”
Murray has thrown for 3,201 yards and 30 touchdowns this season, McCarron for 2,507 yards and 25 touchdowns. Both have completed 67 percent of their passes. McCarron has thrown just two interceptions out of 265 passes (both against Texas A&M), Murray seven interceptions out of 320 passes. Murray leads the nation with a passing efficiency rating of 177.2, followed by McCarron’s 176.3.
Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said McCarron “gets in the right plays. He protects the ball. He understands defenses and what’s coming. And when the game was on the line at LSU, he did go win it. … He’s got some weapons around him that obviously help him, and he’s got an offensive line that is good.”
Saban, meanwhile, said Murray is a smart, accurate quarterback who “knows exactly what he wants to do with the ball” and manages the game well. “Everybody thinks when I say a guy is a good game manager, that’s a negative, but I think it’s a real positive,” Saban said. “I think he’s done a phenomenal job of that for their team. … That’s why they’ve been extremely successful on offense.”
Georgia hopes Murray’s game speaks for itself Saturday.
“I want Aaron Murray to be himself,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo said. “I want him to cut it loose. I want him to play aggressive. I want him to play like I know he can play and like we all know he can play.”