Who Really Had the Better College Football Career, AJ McCarron or Aaron Murray?

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01: Quarterback AJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide motions from the line of scrimmage against the Georgia Bulldogs during the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on December 1, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The SEC is losing some of the better quarterbacks in conference history this offseason, but among the sea of Mettenbergers, Shaws and Manziels, two names stick out for both the quality and breadth of their careers.

AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray.

Neither player ended his career the way he'd hoped. Murray tore his ACL against Kentucky and had to miss his final two games, capping a Georgia season that was plagued with injuries from the get-go. McCarron, on the other hand, stayed healthy but lost back-to-back games for the first time in his career after starting 36-2.

Still, McCarron and Murray are two of the best players in league history—if not college football at large. The former won two national titles as a starter (and three overall), while the latter holds career SEC records for completions, passing yards, total yards and passing touchdowns.

That brings up an interesting question: Whose career was better?

On face value, this appears to be a question of philosophy. Do you prefer a quarterback who puts up stats (Murray) or a quarterback who wins football games (McCarron)?

Upon closer review, however, it's not so cut and dried. Murray shattered the SEC record book, but he had the added advantage of starting as a redshirt freshman. Looking beyond some of the non-volume related numbers, McCarron holds up statistically.

AJ McCarron vs. Aaron Murray: Tale of the Tape
Career Record36-434-17
SEC Championships20
Total Yards8,96913,166
Total Touchdowns80121
Completion Perentage66.962.3
Adjusted Yards/Att9.69.3
QB Rating162.5158.6
Source: Sports-Reference.com

Not only does McCarron have the (far) superior record, the SEC championships and the national title rings, he also has better non-volume numbers. His career passer rating is better than Murray's, as is his completion percentage, adjusted yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio.

That being said, it's hard to penalize Murray for starting as a freshman. If anything, taking the reins of a mediocre 2010 Georgia team was noble and self-effacing. He took his lumps, playing the first four games without suspended receiver A.J. Green, and the team went 6-7, but for a 19-year old kid, making the postseason itself was impressive.

Let's discount 2010, in some spots, when comparing McCarron and Murray side-by-side. No matter who Murray was losing to at the time, it was more impressive than McCarron sitting on the bench behind Greg McElroy.

Starting in 2011, once both men were officially starters, here are Murray and McCarron's records against ranked opponents:

AJ McCarron vs. Aaron Murray: Against Ranked Teams
McCarron RecordMurray Record
McCarron RatingMurray Rating
Source: ESPN.com

McCarron checks in with a better record and rating than Murray, though something curious does pop up. For both quarterbacks, the season their team did the best against Top 25 opponents was the season they did the worst. Conversely, the season McCarron's team did the worst against Top 25 opponents was the season that he did his best.


I'm not sure what to make of that, other than the fact that quarterback wins are an overrated commodity. Teams win football games; quarterbacks just help. It's unfair to hold a guy with a crummy defense accountable for his crummy defense. Performance is all that should matter.

So far, though, McCarron appears to have the edge in both performance and record. If that holds up, he would be an obvious choice over Murray for the career achievement title. But there's one last thing to look at—especially since those rating numbers were so close to one another.

Not all Top 25 teams are created equal. McCarron, for example, got to face Texas A&M's defense this season and call it a quality opponent. Anyone who watched the Aggies play in 2013 knows that's not the case.

Here's a look at Murray and McCarron's passer ratings, against all FBS teams, sorted by the strength of opposing pass defense (per Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings):

AJ McCarron vs. Aaron Murray: Rating vs. Pass Defense (since '11)
Opposing DefenseMcCarron Rating (Games)Murray Rating (Games)
Ranked 1-20137.4 (11)143.6 (14)
Ranked 21-40168.3 (6)151.3 (8)
Ranked 41-60164.1 (9)153.7 (5)
Ranked 61-80212.2 (3)218.7 (5)
Ranked 81 or Higher179.0 (7)199.9 (4)
Source: Football Outsiders

This calls into question some of the numbers above, along with the notion that McCarron is who you'd prefer in a "big game" against the "best teams." Not only is Murray more experienced against top-20 pass defenses, he's also been more successful.

These numbers also discount what Murray can do with his legs. Billed as a dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, he showed on numerous occasions that he could be a threat running the football. Not in a Michael Vick way so much as in an Aaron Rodgers way, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

Still, as we saw above, sometimes a quarterback's numbers get inflated when his team doesn't perform well. He's forced to throw more, occasionally against prevent defenses and softer coverages, so his final rating might be a bit misleading.

Contextually, McCarron's 137.4 rating against top-20 pass defenses isn't the indictment it may seem (when compared with Murray's). His two national titles came against teams ranked second and 12th, respectively, against the pass, and both times McCarron completed more than 67 percent of his passes.

In the biggest game of his career, against McCarron's fourth-ranked Alabama pass defense, Murray played merely decent, going 18-of-33 for 265 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Choosing between these two quarterbacks is splitting hairs. They both enjoyed fantastic careers, and though McCarron would seem an easy answer as to whose was better, the competition is far closer and far more complicated than it seems.

But if forced to choose, I would still roll (tide) with AJ.


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