ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 19: Aaron Murray #11 of the Georgia Bulldogs rushes for a first down against the Kentucky Wildcats at Sanford Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
He may not have posted the eye-popping stats of 2010, but Murray deserves credit for keeping it together with his receiving corps in major rebuilding mode.
You'd think that, following a campaign in which the Georgia Bulldogs bounced back from the only losing season of Mark Richt's career to one in which they posted 10 wins, there wouldn't be a lot to complain about. This being Bulldog Nation, though, there'll always be something. Why couldn't we beat South Carolina? Why did Mike Bobo call such a conservative offense? And why did Aaron Murray look so much worse this year than during his freshman season?
The South Carolina loss is one we'll certainly look back upon as a giant missed opportunity, and there's going to be a certain segment of the Georgia fan base that'll want to send Bobo to the unemployment line even if the Dawgs bring home a national title in 2012. But the criticisms of Murray are the hardest to figure. In fairness, that griping dropped off considerably as the Dawgs left each new corpse in their wake over the course of their 10-game winning streak, but every once in a while you'll still see someone step up to grouse about his performance (and I'm not just talking about the AJC.com message-board dead-enders still saying it's time to give Hutson Mason the keys to the offense).
For the record, here's how Murray's passing stats compare from year to year:
The first thing that jumps out at me is a comment not on Murray's performance but on Bobo's: Despite all the criticisms about overly conservative game-planning on offense, we've actually thrown 8 percent more passes through 13 games in 2011 than we did last year. And that's with the Dawgs holding comfortable leads in numerous games in '11, as opposed to the frequency with which we were desperately scrambling to make up deficits in '10. Murray's yards per attempt dipped by more than a full yard this year, so you could make the case that the passes Bobo did order him to throw were lower-risk, but the 2011 Dawgs were hardly the epitome of a boring, grind-it-out offense.
That said, Murray's numbers did take a dip in completion percentage, interception percentage and overall QB rating. But none of those drops were exactly precipitous, and his passer rating still put him at No. 27 in efficiency among all FBS quarterbacks who threw at least 15 passes in 2011. The question shouldn't be "Why did Murray's numbers fall off," but rather "With a true-freshman running back and a thin offensive line and without perhaps the most physically gifted wide receiver in Georgia history, why didn't they drop off more?"
Think back to the Colorado game in 2010, when the offense soared with A.J. Green in the lineup but ground almost literally to a halt when he was on the sideline. That game was a constant source of dread after A.J. declared for the 2011 NFL Draft, and Dawg fans were rightly concerned that the passing game might be starting back at square one despite having Murray under center.
But clearly that didn't happen. Now, that's not to say Murray was doing it all on his own with a roster completely bereft of receiving talent. In particular, freshmen Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley all came on to varying degrees in 2011, giving a preview of what might be the best Georgia receiving corps in history by the time they all become upperclassmen. But Mitchell missed three games in the middle of the season due to injury (including the pivotal Cocktail Party matchup), while Bennett and Conley didn't really emerge until the season's second half. Whatever happened to keep the Georgia passing game afloat in the wake of A.J.'s departure, it clearly involved some leadership skills and heads-up play on Murray's part.
So let's put to rest this idea that Aaron Murray suffered some kind of "sophomore slump" in 2011. Instead, let's be glad that his stats held up as well as they did in a make-or-break year for the Georgia program -- and look forward to what will, by this time next year, have blossomed into one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country.