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Aaron Murray & A.J. McCarron: Play Time Is Over

The SEC Championship Game will feature the nation's top two quarterbacks in terms of passer efficiency, but they have put up those numbers against mediocre schedules. Saturday will represent a big step up for both of them.

Step into the light, Aaron
Step into the light, Aaron
Scott Cunningham

One of the negatives of conference expansion is that we sometimes lose the ability to compare teams within the same league. In a 14-team conference with an eight-game league schedule, each SEC team plays only two of the seven members of the opposite division. This can lead a team to play a very challenging SEC schedule or a relatively easy one, all depending on the luck of the draw. As Steve Spurrier pointed out, much to the consternation of Georgia fans, but with a good degree of accuracy, Georgia and Alabama both benefited from good fortune in their schedules this year.

The 2012 SEC is highly stratified. There are six elite teams, four good-to-mediocre teams, and four bad teams. Happily, the six elite teams were split evenly between the two divisions. Georgia missed all three of the elite teams from the West; Alabama missed the three elite teams from the East. Thus, the Tide and Dawgs only played two conference games apiece against truly challenging opponents. Add in eroding non-conference schedules - Bama played three cupcakes along with a good, but not great Michigan team; with Georgia Tech's decline, Georgia didn't play a single top 50 non-conference opponent - and you have two teams that played twelve games, but had few challenges on the slate. By Brian Fremeau's metrics. Bama and Georgia played the two easiest schedules in the SEC. ($)

This context is important when we look at the quarterback match-up for the game on Saturday. Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron posted outstanding stats this season. The two juniors are #1 and #2 nationally in passer efficiency. However, what do we really know about them, given their schedules? Do stats compiled against the defenses of Western Kentucky and Buffalo matter at all when we are trying to predict how they will do against defenses chock full of future NFL starters?

This 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.

To get a sense as to Murray's track record against defenses that are in the same ballpark as the one he will face at the Georgia Dome, I decided to take a look at his stats for every game played against a defense that finished in the top twenty nationally in yards allowed per play. Chart? Chart.

Opponent Comp. Att. Yards TD INT YPA
‘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 185 348 2374 20 20 6.8

Thanks goodness for that Vandy game, huh? If you view the South Carolina and Florida games as the true tests because those defenses, unlike Vandy's, have the sort of athletes that the Tide will bring to town, then the track record in 2012 is ugly. Then again, we're dealing with a sample size of two, which illustrates both Georgia's good fortune in avoiding top opponents this year and also the limitations of this exercise. You don't have to have a PhD in statistics to know that drawing major conclusions from a two-game data set is a fool's errand.

Let's put those numbers in context by placing A.J. McCarron under the same microscope:

Opponent Comp. Att. Yards TD INT YPA
‘12 LSU 14 27 165 1 0 6.1
‘12 Michigan 11 21 199 2 0 9.5
‘11 LSU 23 34 234 0 0 6.9
‘11 Miss. State 14 24 163 0 1 6.8
‘11 LSU 16 28 199 0 1 7.1
‘11 Vandy 23 30 237 4 0 7.9
‘11 Florida 12 25 140 0 0 5.6
‘11 Penn State 19 31 163 1 0 5.3
TOTAL 132 220 1501 8 2 6.8

McCarron has a smaller sample size, in part because he did not start as a redshirt freshman like Murray did and in part because he has played one fewer top defense over the past two years. It's also interesting that both Murray and McCarron faced more top defenses in 2011 than they did in 2012, further drilling home the point about the two teams' schedules this year.

Overall, the numbers reflect the differences in the Alabama and Georgia offenses. McCarron throws for fewer yards - 187 per game as compared to Murray's 215 - but that he because he throws less. The two quarterbacks have the exact same yards per attempt. This is true despite the fact that McCarron has completed 60% of his passes in games against top defenses, whereas Murray's completion percentage is only 53%. Thus, it's fair to say that McCarron is that he throws shorter, higher-percentage passes, while Murray takes more risks down the field. Murray gets his yards in bigger chunks.

You can see the risk issue come up with the interception totals, which is the big difference between the two. McCarron's interception rate against top opponents is below 1%. He simply does not give the other team the ball. Combine that strength with Alabama's outstanding defenses and you have a winning recipe. Bama forces their opponents to drive the length of the field and they bet correctly that they won't be able to do it against a Saban- and Smart-coached unit stocked with blue chippers. Murray, on the other hand, has an interception rate against top opponents of 5.7%. He threw three picks in Georgia's biggest win of 2012. He threw three picks when he played in the SEC Championship Game last year.

It is that proclivity to throw interceptions that represents the big statistical disparity between Murray and McCarron. Aaron and A.J. have the same yards per attempt against top defenses. However, if you switch to adjusted yards per attempt, which gives a twenty-yard bonus for touchdowns and imposes a 45-yard penalty for interceptions, then McCarron's number goes up to 7.14, while Murray's drops to 5.38. If this were a case of Murray being dragged down by his freshman and sophomore stats, then maybe we could conclude that a large portion of Murray's performance could be dismissed as irrelevant in projecting a result Saturday, but his poor performances against South Carolina and Florida indicate that this isn't a problem that went away as he gained experience.

In the lead-up to the Florida game, I wrote that Georgia would have to break two patterns: the pattern of the team to lose against elite opponents and the pattern of the defense to under-perform in 2012. The Dawgs passed both tests and as a result, have put themselves in a position to win the conference and a national title. The SEC Championship Game represents another instance where a pattern will have to be broken. In this instance, it's Aaron Murray's tendency to play poorly and throw interceptions against great defenses. Zach Mettenberger and Johnny Manziel showed that this Alabama defense can be beaten. It is not impregnable like the 2011 edition, which stands to reason, given how many 2011 Bama stars are now playing in the NFL.

It will be almost impossible for Georgia to beat Alabama if the Dawgs are minus two or worse in the turnover department. We know that A.J. McCarron is highly unlikely to throw picks. We do not know whether Murray can do the same while still generating yards and points. That is the big question for Saturday.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.