By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Oftentimes in sports we define greatness based on championships, whether fairly or unfairly.
Athletes across several sports have defined themselves not only by producing statistically great careers, but by collecting multiple rings in the process. Icons such as Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter come to mind in this category.
On the other hand, you have athletes such as Dan Marino, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Ted Williams and Eric Dickerson – all-time greats in their respective sports who retired without adding a championship to their legacy.
Eli Manning represents a great example from the collegiate ranks. Although he’s enjoyed great success as a professional quarterback with two Super Bowl wins, he was never able to win the SEC Western Division during his tenure at Ole Miss despite elite numbers that included over 10,000 yards and 80 touchdowns through the air.
This Saturday in Atlanta, prolific Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has an opportunity to collect a career-defining victory against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game – something so difficult that even players as special as Eli, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, haven’t been able to accomplish it.
Only a junior, Murray’s career numbers put him among the most elite signal-callers in the history of not only UGA, but the SEC overall. Murray is Georgia’s career leader in touchdown passes with 89 and also sits at number one in career pass efficiency with a 158.24 rating. As it stands, the Tampa, Fla., native is on pace to finish atop the Bulldogs career record book in total offense, passing yards, quarterback rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage in addition to his growing TD record.
In less than three seasons, he has built his legacy to the same level in UGA lore as David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Eric Zeier and Quincy Carter.
Taking a scroll through the SEC passing records, you find Murray’s name listed among all-time conference greats such as Greene, the Manning brothers, Danny Wuerffel, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. Murray’s 2012 passer rating (177.2) is not only the best in the nation, but it is only 4.9 points shy of Cam Newton’s single season conference mark of 182.1 from his Heisman year in 2010.
Murray is second in SEC history in passing touchdowns, fifth in touchdown responsibility (99 total), and 10th in total yardage (9,618). With another stellar performance last week in a win over rival Georgia Tech, he became the first SEC quarterback to ever record three consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons.
Murray has now led the Bulldogs to consecutive Eastern Division titles, and the only thing left to add to his resume that many of the aforementioned quarterbacks have is an SEC Championship.
Murray may be in the midst of another statistically stunning season – 3,201 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 yards per attempt – but he’s now as focused as ever on bringing home the conference crown this weekend. Murray’s focus is so locked in, actually, that he isn’t speaking to the media this week as he prepares to face the nation’s No. 1 total defense.
Murray’s roommate, UGA linebacker Christian Robinson, was asked about his quarterback’s silence in Monday’s SEC Championship Player Teleconferences.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the media,” Robinson said. “Just him, personally, I don’t think he’s trying to send a message. I just think he’s dedicated to this week and being prepared.”
That preparation started immediately following Saturday’s win. Instead of taking it easy the day after a game, Murray was already immersed in the film room in Georgia’s football facility.
“He wasn’t at the house [Sunday],” Robinson added. “He was studying film all day. He’s just a great competitor, one of my great friends, and I know this one means so much to him. He works his tail off every day, and people really don’t see that sometimes.”
Despite being the face of the program for the last few seasons, Murray is intent on steering clear of any potential distractions this week. He understands that playing in Atlanta in December is a rare opportunity, especially when playing a rigorous schedule year in and year out in the SEC. Earning a chance to play for the title in America’s premiere football conference is not easy, and it’s clear that he isn’t taking it for granted.
Georgia receiver Tavarres King has been impressed with Murray’s work ethic not only this week, but ever since he set foot on campus in Athens.
“He’s a hard-working guy,” King said. “It’s something I noticed from the get-go when we got here; he was picking everybody’s brains. He’s always the first one in the meeting room, it’s been like that since he got here and it’s been like that now. The way he prepares is crazy.”
That preparation takes even more precedence when it leads to a game with the kind of weight that this one carries. During the SEC’s current run of six consecutive national titles, the conference championship has almost become a de facto play-in to the BCS Championship Game.
With 12-0 Notre Dame waiting atop the BCS standings, this season appears to be no different, as the winner on Saturday will likely obtain a shot at the Irish for all the marbles in Miami.
With a year of eligibility remaining and an already elite stat line, Murray will go down as one of the SEC’s best when it’s all said and done. Something that would assure him a spot in the stratosphere of SEC legend, however, is the championship hardware to boot.
One thing we can count on come Saturday night is that Aaron Murray will be ready to go for the Dawgs.