If Georgia senior Aaron Murray had opted to enter the NFL Draft last season, he likely would have been the first quarterback drafted.
Instead, Murray stuck around in hopes of leading the Bulldogs to a BCS National Championship. The next step on that journey is Saturday, when Murray and No. 7 Georgia, 4-1, play host to undefeated Missouri at Sanford Stadium in Athens.
The No. 25 Tigers, 5-0, particularly the secondary, understand the challenge that awaits. Murray will be the best quarterback that coach Gary Pinkel’s crew has faced this season.
“He’s like an NFL quarterback,” MU senior cornerback Randy Ponder said. “He’s already playing at that level. He’s going to throw the ball on a rope and make throws most quarterbacks can’t, so we’re going to have to be on our game.”
Murray is building a strong case as the best quarterback in Southeastern Conference history.
He became the SEC’s career passing leader at 11,625 yards last week in a 34-31 overtime win at Tennessee, and he is the only SEC quarterback to start his career with three consecutive 3,000-yard seasons.
Before the season ends, perhaps against Missouri, Murray will become the SEC’s career leader in total offense. He needs 325 yards to eclipse former Florida star Tim Tebow’s career mark of 12,232 and is five touchdown passes behind the mark of 114 set by another Gators great, Danny Wuerffel.
Murray ranks seventh in the nation in passing efficiency at 176.9 and has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,534 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. He is the Football Bowl Subdivision’s active leader in touchdown passes with 109, total offense with 11,908 yards and total touchdowns with 121.
Missouri understands all that, but the Tigers aren’t overwhelmed by it.
“You could definitely say it’s our biggest challenge,” senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “You’re going to definitely see him at the next level, but I get excited to play against guys like this. The competition just excites me.”
Still, the Tigers acknowledge that they will have to adjust against Murray.
“You definitely take into consideration that he’s that top guy,” Ponder said. “You know as far as giving him cushion in coverage, you have to be a little bit tighter than normal, because he can make those small-window throws.”
Murray has to be extra cautious too.
Missouri is second in the nation with 11 interceptions.
“They’re very athletic and do a great job of making plays on the ball when it’s in the air,” Murray said when asked about Missouri’s secondary. “If you’re inaccurate at all with your throw, they’re going to make a play on the ball, so I’ve got to be extremely accurate. I’ve got to be precise on my decision-making of knowing where I’ve got to go with the ball and delivering strikes when I make up my mind where I’m going.”
Missouri ranks last in the SEC in pass defense, giving up 293.8 yards per game, but the Tigers have faced predominantly passing offenses and rank sixth in the conference in defensive pass efficiency at 123.0 — better than Georgia’s 147.6.
Opponents are averaging only 6.6 yards per attempt against Missouri, which is third-best in the SEC.
The Tigers also have the advantage of going against depleted Georgia receiving corps, which lost Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Wesley-Scott for the season to knee injuries and also will be without Michael Bennett, who has a torn meniscus.
Of course, the Bulldogs still have Murray, who has worked with his young receivers all week after practice trying to hasten a rapport and build timing with the new targets.
Missouri hopes its experience in the secondary and the variety of looks and fronts its defense deploys can occasionally baffle Murray, but that’s only part of the game plan.
“He’s a great quarterback,” junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “We’ll see him playing on Sundays next year. We just have to get pressure in his face, and hopefully he’ll make some bad throws.”