When Aaron Murray first arrived at the University of Georgia in 2009, it was hard to imagine that Mark Richt’s career would need saving. The Bulldogs were coming off of a disappointing 2008 season, but Richt had managed to win 82 games over the course of just eight seasons in Athens, and the expectation was that Georgia would reload after the losses of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno and carry on.
While Murray sat patiently as a redshirt during an 8-5 season, some of Richt’s goodwill diminished. After a losing season in 2010 and two season-opening losses the following year, Richt’s seat was no longer warm—it was burning.
And with a 6-9 record as a starter, Aaron Murray hardly seemed like the man to save Richt’s career, but he did.
The Formula for Success
On paper, Murray may not have fit the prototype for “career-saving quarterback.” He’s not a 6’6” gunslinger. He's not an elusive playmaker. He didn’t even find his way onto the field as a true freshman. When he did finally play, he won just 40 percent of his first 15 games.
But somehow, Murray created his own formula for success. By combining resiliency on the field with a commitment to improving away from it and remaining loyal to the coach who gave him a shot, Murray found a way to win.
In doing so, he found a way to keep Richt in Athens.
Seemingly immune to the turmoil around him, Murray followed consecutive losses to Boise State and South Carolina in 2011 with 10 consecutive wins. His resiliency turned one of the lowest points in recent Bulldog history into the Dawgs’ longest single-season winning streak since 1982. More importantly, he got Richt off the hot seat with a trip to the SEC Championship Game.
Murray’s commitment to the film room, to workouts and to developing chemistry with his receivers was put on full display in 2012. He followed up a breakout 2011 season by improving in completion percentage, passing yards, yards per attempt and touchdown passes while reducing his interceptions thrown.
|Aaron Murray Improvement From 2011 to 2012|
|Year||Completion Percentage||Yards||Yards Per Attempt||Touchdowns||Interceptions|
His continued progression combined with freshmen running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to make Georgia’s offense one of the most formidable in the nation.
Murray was not finished. After coming up just a few yards short in the 2012 SEC Championship Game, Murray opted to return for his senior season. In July he told Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports that he came back, “to get one more chance to be first. To play for the SEC Championship again, and hopefully have a chance to play for the national championship after that.”
Obviously, the BCS National Championship remains elusive. A barrage of injuries and missed opportunities left the Bulldogs with three losses coming out of October.
But it’s hard to pin much of the Dawgs’ shortcoming on Murray, who has suddenly developed a reputation for being cool under pressure.
What Has He Done for Richt Lately?
Trailing Clemson by 10 points with 2:25 left to play in this season's opener, Murray manufactured a 64-yard scoring drive to bring Georgia within three. The Bulldogs failed to recover an onside kick and thus came up short, but Murray’s performance late in the game was not unnoticed.
A few weeks later, he conducted the go-ahead scoring drive against LSU and left the Tigers with less than three minutes of game clock.
The next week, Murray marched 75 yards with a crippled offense to send the Tennessee game into overtime.
But Murray’s most impressive late-game drive of the season did not result in a lead change or even a score. After gaining just 12 yards of offense over the first 22:43 of the second half against Florida on Saturday, Murray managed to rally the offense for one final clock-eating 67-yard drive to preserve a three-point win against the Gators.
In doing so, he brought Georgia to 5-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play. The win swung the momentum in the rivalry with Florida, as Georgia has now won the last three matchups. Furthermore, the victory marked the first time since 1987 that Georgia defeated South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida in the same season.
On a more intangible level, however, it once again kept Mark Richt off the hot seat.
A 4-4 mark for a team that was expected to contend for a national title would have been deemed unacceptable by many, regardless of injuries. A loss to the Gators would have been the cherry on a disaster of a season.
And, with Murray departing following this season, Richt would have entered a rebuilding 2014 campaign with very little goodwill to his credit.
It Had to Be Murray
When all is said and done, Murray will go down as the greatest quarterback in SEC history—at least as far as the record books are concerned. His performance could not have come in a better era for the Georgia Bulldogs.
Aside from Murray, Georgia has struggled to find an identity since 2010. The defense has had flashes of brilliance (2011), but it has largely failed to turn talent and coaching expertise into on-field production.
Offensively, Georgia has found an answer in the running game thanks to Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but those two backs have been banged up for the majority of this season. Prior to their emergence, the running back position was a revolving door featuring eight starters over a three-year period.
With so many unanswered questions, only a quarterback of Murray’s caliber could have brought Georgia out of the low of the 2010 season.
Only Murray could have saved Mark Richt's job, and he continues to give Richt job security.