ATHENS, Ga. -- In time, a relatively unimpressive stat line against Florida might go down as the turning point in Aaron Murray's career.
By that midseason game last fall, Georgia’s quarterback had already authored a series of subpar performances against ranked teams in his two-plus seasons as the Bulldogs’ starter. He was in the middle of another against the Gators, tossing interceptions on three straight first-half possessions as Georgia took a 7-6 lead into halftime.
Yet Murray was able to regroup, going 8-for-16 in the second half for 116 yards and hitting Malcolm Mitchell for a win-clinching 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that proved Murray is a tougher competitor than it might have once appeared.
“We talked a lot about what being soft is and what being soft isn’t,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said after the 17-9 victory against Florida gave the Bulldogs back-to-back wins against their biggest rival for the first time since the 1980s. “And the thing I mentioned to him and all the QBs is that being soft is if you get hit in the mouth a few times or sacked a few times or throw a pick here and there, you can’t stand back up and go back and play football.”
In Georgia’s next game against ranked opposition, Murray was hit in the mouth again -- literally, by Alabama defensive end Quinton Dial in the SEC championship game -- but went on to prove that he’s anything but soft. In Georgia's games against ranked opponents following the Florida win -- against Alabama and against Nebraska and its top-ranked pass defense in the Capital One Bowl -- Murray flashed resiliency that he might have lacked earlier in his career.
He was a combined 36-for-66 for 692 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions against the Crimson Tide and Cornhuskers. And in the second halves of those two games, he was even more efficient, hitting 15 of 25 passes for 401 yards, three scores and no interceptions.
“Hopefully he won’t have to hear any of that big-game stuff anymore,” said tight end Arthur Lynch, one of Murray’s closest friends on the team.
Murray will have an opportunity to end that criticism for good when the Bulldogs return to the field this fall. He’ll have a national TV showcase to open the season against Clemson and its high-powered offense on Aug. 31. And he’ll face South Carolina and LSU -- two defenses that created the previous low points in his college career -- before the end of September.
“It’s going to be a huge start to the season,” Murray said. “It’s very similar to two years ago when we started off with Boise State and South Carolina [both losses]. Obviously that didn’t turn out too well. The season turned out well, but we definitely want in any season to start off strong.
“To get those first couple of wins is always tough, to get that train rolling, and we know we have a tough task ahead of us and we have to be ready. It’s not like we can walk in there and have a game or two to warm up. It’s right off the bat and we’ve got to be ready to go.”
Murray and Georgia’s offense set a new school record by scoring 529 points last season. If they can somehow score enough to run the table against one of the nation’s most difficult September schedules, the Bulldogs’ only true SEC road games come against Tennessee and Auburn, who combined to win eight games last season. Survive September and UGA will be in the thick of the national championship conversation -- and Murray could firmly be in the Heisman Trophy talks.
He is already the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons. By the end of this season, he could own league career records for passing yards, touchdowns, completions and passing attempts.
While setting those records isn’t his primary goal, Murray worked this spring to make himself an even more productive quarterback as a senior. He dropped some weight, down to 207 pounds, to help regain some of the scrambling ability he believed he lost between his freshman and junior seasons. And he visited with quarterback guru George Whitfield -- who previously helped No. 1 picks Andrew Luck and Cam Newton prepare for the NFL draft -- during spring break to refine his technique and add velocity to his throws.
“I think anytime you can go somewhere and get one thing or two things that might help you be more accurate or help you with footwork, it’s good,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo told reporters after Murray’s trip.
Statistically, Murray is going to finish his career as one of Georgia's and the SEC’s top quarterbacks so long as he remains healthy this fall. There is more to a legacy than stats, however, and Murray realizes that winning a championship would ensure he will go down as one of the elite quarterbacks in conference history.
He helped the Bulldogs recover from the first losing season in Richt’s tenure by leading them to SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012. They fell just short of a spot in the Discover BCS Championship Game when a last-minute drive against Alabama fizzled at the Tide’s 4-yard line -- motivating the Georgia quarterback to bypass an opportunity to enter the NFL draft in order to take one more shot at college football’s biggest prize.
“Obviously it would definitely be cool to have those records,” Murray said. “I’m a guy who has based my time here [on] I want to win championships. That’s my No. 1 goal. So to accomplish all of that in one year, I think that would be a great year. That would be a lot of fun.
“But like I said, my first goal and only goal, really, is to win an SEC championship and win a national championship next year.”