The rebirth of Aaron Murray means Georgia has only one flaw left

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

If Georgia's defense can turn it around like its quarterback did, the Dawgs could make another national title run.

The 2012 Florida game might've been a major turning point for the Georgia Bulldogs. Headed into that game, the Dawgs had lost nine of their last 10 games against top-10 opponents. Here is what I wrote in the lead-up to the game:

Since 2008, Georgia is 1-9 against top-10 opponents, with the only win coming at Grant Field in 2009 against Georgia Tech [...] Games against top-10 opponents have not been close:

Alabama 41, Georgia 30
Florida 49, Georgia 10
Oklahoma State 24, Georgia 10
LSU 20, Georgia 13
Florida 41, Georgia 17
Auburn 49, Georgia 31
Boise State 35, Georgia 21
LSU 42, Georgia 10
South Carolina 35, Georgia 7

Georgia gutted out a 17-9 win over Florida on the strength of an epic performance from linebacker Jarvis Jones.  That win put Georgia into the de facto national semifinal against Alabama. Going into that game, the question shifted from whether Georgia could beat a top-10 opponent to whether Aaron Murray could perform at a high level against an elite defense:

[Piling up stats against bad opponents] is a particular concern with Murray, because the rap on him during his time at Georgia has been that he has been great against weaker opponents, but has struggled in the games where Georgia needs him the most. The Dawgs got the big-game monkey off their back with an eight-point win against Florida, but Murray did not play well against the Gators, so the concern remains with him. All quarterbacks do better when they do not face pressure and when they are throwing through big windows, but Murray seems to have an especially big disparity in performance based on the quality of opponent.

Murray played well against Alabama and has rolled into 2013 with some excellent performances in Georgia's trio of big September clashes. For the Alabama preview, I compiled a list of Murray's stat lines against defenses that finished in the top 20 in yards per play allowed. Now, assuming for the sake of argument that Georgia's three top opponents in September will end up with top-20 defenses, look at those numbers with his stats against Alabama, Clemson, South Carolina, and LSU tacked on:

Opponent

Comp.

Att.

Yards

TD

INT

YPA

’13 LSU

20

34

298

4

1

8.8

’13 South Carolina

17

23

309

4

0

13.4

’13 Clemson

20

29

323

0

1

11.1

’12 Alabama

18

33

265

1

1

8.0

‘12 Florida

12

24

150

1

3

6.3

‘12 South Carolina

11

31

109

0

1

3.5

‘12 Vandy

18

24

250

2

0

10.4

‘11 Michigan State

20

32

288

2

2

9.0

‘11 LSU

16

40

163

1

3

4.1

‘11 Florida

15

34

169

2

1

5.0

‘11 Vandy

22

38

326

3

1

8.6

‘11 Miss. State

13

25

160

2

3

6.4

‘11 South Carolina

19

29

248

4

1

8.6

‘10 UCF

21

38

198

0

2

5.2

‘10 Florida

18

37

313

3

3

8.5

TOTAL THROUGH 11 GAMES

185

348

2374

20

20

6.8

LAST FOUR GAMES


75


119


1195


9


3


10.0


TOTAL FOR CAREER


260


467


3569


29


23


7.6


Notice a bit of a change? Georgia was five yards away from playing for the national title in 2012 in no small part because of its junior quarterback. The Dawgs made it through their September gauntlet at 2-1 and in excellent position to win a third straight SEC East crown for the same reason. With scattered exceptions, Murray's performances against the Tide, Gamecocks, and assortment of Tigers have been his best in Silver Britches. And it's worth noting that Murray put up these numbers despite losing his best receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, for the season early in the Clemson game, as well as his best running back, Todd Gurley, for stretches of the Clemson game and most of the LSU game.

You want to play fun with numbers in anticipation of Georgia's trip to Knoxville? Peyton Manning's best adjusted yards per attempt at Tennessee was 8.5 during his sophomore and senior seasons.* Murray's adjusted yards per attempt after playing a September replete with top opponents? A ludicrous 12.3.

* - Manning finished second in the SEC in adjusted yards per attempt in each of his final three seasons. It's not hard to guess who finished ahead of him in 1995 and 1996: Danny Wuerffel. Manning's conqueror in 1997 after Wuerffel graduated to NFL clipboard holder? How about Aaron Murray's current offensive coordinator.

The thorn to Murray's rose is the consistently underwhelming performances of the Georgia defense in the same games. Yes, college football is now in an offensive golden age, and our expectations for defensive numbers have to be tempered. Yes, Georgia's defense is young this year. With all of that said, Georgia has needed all of Murray's recent epic performances, because the defense has tacked onto the list above a stretch in which the Dawgs have allowed 32 to Alabama, 35 to Clemson, 30 to South Carolina, and 41 to LSU.  Even when one includes the defensive performance against Florida last year, Georgia is allowing 33.8 points per game against top-10 opponents since 2008, with no sign of the trend abating.

So here is the current state of Georgia football in a nutshell. From the start of the 2008 season -- one in which the Dawgs started the year at No. 1 -- up to the Florida and Alabama games last year, Georgia repeatedly came up short against top opponents, both on offense and defense. Since the latter stages of last season, Georgia has experienced a major uptick in offensive performance against elite foes, most notably because Aaron Murray has matured into one of the best quarterbacks in college football. However, Georgia's defense continues to fail its biggest tests.

The good news is that Murray gives Georgia a shot to beat any opponent in college football. The bad news is that Murray has, at most, ten games left in a Georgia uniform, but that unfixed defense will still be around after he's gone.

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