An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. This week, Georgia senior Aaron Murray checks in at No. 7.
For a quarterback who has seemingly played at Georgia for three decades, it's a shame that Aaron Murray is in danger of having 10 painful seconds come to define his college career. He could already be known as the most important quarterback in the history of Georgia football, but faced with his greatest opportunity, he ran out of time.
Let's go back to December, the SEC championship, a de facto play-in game for a BCS National Championship Game spot against Notre Dame. Alabama and Georgia staged a classic 15-round heavyweight fight, trading blows back and forth in the best all-around football game of the season, maybe the best college football game since the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC. It was college football at its best, and Murray was a big part of the high level of play against Alabama's vaunted defense, throwing for 265 yards and a touchdown.
Had one play earlier in the game taken a couple seconds less time; had Chris Conley dropped the ball instead of catching it off a deflection; had, perhaps, Murray spiked it, even if that might not have actually been the right choice ... there were numerous ways for Georgia to win the SEC title game. They did not. After leading a potentially legendary drive, completing three passes in a row to take the Bulldogs from their own 28 to the Georgia eight-yard line, Murray looked toward the sideline, then opted to run a play with 10 seconds left and no timeouts, down 32-28. He threw wide, but it was tipped and caught by Conley as he fell to the ground, in bounds and well short of the end zone. Game over, on to the Capital One Bowl instead of football immortality.
It didn't help that Murray threw short of the end zone, but maybe if the ball's not tipped it becomes a Michael Crabtree-against-Texas sort of play, or at the very least Conley gets out of bounds. Instead, the game of inches cliché presented itself in full force and delivered Alabama its third national championship in four years -- the result with Notre Dame, in hindsight, being a foregone conclusion. Had that pass gone differently, had something gone differently in that blink of the eye, Georgia could have unseated Alabama, gone to Miami and beaten Notre Dame itself, erecting a statue of Mark Richt outside of Sanford Stadium mere months after he occupied an apparent and perhaps unjust hot seat. And Murray would be Georgia's first national championship quarterback in 32 years, instead of the productive quarterback who can't win the big game.
If you're of a certain age, it may sort of feel like the only two quarterbacks in the history of Georgia football are Murray and David Greene. Even with a No. 1 overall draft pick (Matthew Stafford) and others between them, they might as well have played a century as starting quarterbacks in Athens. Before Colt McCoy and Kellen Moore came along, Greene set the all-time FBS record for wins as a quarterback (a ridiculous stat, of course, but it's still an impressive measure of longevity). Murray has seemingly been at Georgia forever, yet he still has a year left, and barring injury, he will break the SEC career records for passing yards and passing touchdowns this fall.
This says a lot while also saying little, passing records having been forever altered by 12-game schedules plus conference title games, bowl games that count toward statistics (why they ever didn't remains an absurd quirk on par with sacks counting as rushing yards) and the 21st-century explosion of passing. When Georgia last won a national championship in 1980, behind the running of a freshman named Herschel Walker, starting quarterback Buck Belue completed 77 passes for 1,314 yards. Last year, Murray completed 249 for 3,893. It's a totally different game, one in which, on top of the passing, two freshmen running backs -- Todd Gurley (6.2) and Keith Marshall (6.5) -- bested Walker's average of 5.9 yards per carry while combining to rush for more than 2,000 yards.
It's difficult to pinpoint what exactly Murray's record-setting numbers mean, and he's had the expected ups and downs -- including 14 interceptions as a sophomore after losing A.J. Green to the NFL -- but with a year left he has unquestionably put together a great college career already, starting every game for Georgia the last three years and passing for 3,000 yards each season.
In 2012, he finished second nationally in QB rating to A.J. McCarron, threw 36 touchdown passes and was the only quarterback to average more than 10 yards per attempt. His height (listed at 6-foot-1 but probably an inch or two shorter) will hurt him as an NFL prospect, and he may fall to Day 2 of the draft, but he's an experienced player who's been through it all at the college level and has shown an ability to make smart decisions and accurate throws anywhere on the field.
Murray has never been known as the best of the best in college football, and despite those numbers, he seemed like the clear choice for seventh place on this quarterback countdown, given who's left to go. He's the college version of Matt Hasselbeck's stint with the Seahawks: doesn't blow you away, but sneaky good and somewhat underappreciated.
You could win with a Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback, and Georgia certainly can win with Aaron Murray.
Georgia will not run a Heisman campaign for Murray this preseason. Despite being overshadowed by some of the other great quarterbacks among the nation's top 10 teams, he does have name recognition, and he does have a chance to quarterback the Bulldogs back to Atlanta and perhaps beyond. With Murray under center of an effectively balanced offense, they will play the best and most exciting offensive football in the defense-heavy SEC, aside from Texas A&M. Georgia could win the national championship, go 8-4 or, most likely, split the difference. If the Bulldogs do win the championship, then, yes, Murray will go down in SEC history as one of the all-time greats. If not, he should anyway.
The problem with the use of the word "legacy" as a one-sentence catchall for an entire career, as sportswriters love to do, is that it's easy to get hung up on one little shortcoming. In terms of impact, no, the last play of the Alabama game was not little, of course, but it shouldn't overshadow everything Murray has done for Georgia football and everything he still can do in 2013.
Just as Georgia's falling short in big games isn't and wouldn't be solely the fault of Murray, neither would winning the national championship be solely his responsibility. The Bulldogs are talented but young and unproven on defense; they're talented and loaded on offense, with Murray surrounded by running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, tight end Arthur Lynch and wideout Malcolm Mitchell, plus all five starters returning to the offensive line. They could go undefeated, or they could lose at Clemson in the opener. They could do the latter and still win the national title by running the table and achieving a different result in the SEC title game.
Regardless of how Georgia finishes, and regardless of whatever legacy we try to shoehorn Murray into, championship or not, he'll be one of the most productive and accomplished quarterbacks in the history of SEC football. One fluke play, even in the deciding moment of the biggest game, shouldn't make or break a career.