When No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia take the field for the SEC Championship game Saturday, the noise will be deafening. But the uproar has already begun, with a swarm of coverage that has transformed a conference championship into a playoff for the national title.
Forget the reemergence of Notre Dame as one of the nation's elite programs, something that would normally dominate the college football landscape. For this week anyway, all eyes will be turned on the Georgia Dome, and rightly so -- the winner will be riding a streak of six consecutive national championships for the conference. The victor will probably be the favorite in the national title, despite the Fighting Irish's vaunted defense and unblemished 12-0 record.
If Georgia is that team, it will be due to a number of factors: the coaching of Mark Richt, the play of the defense led by All-American Jarvis Jones and the efforts of two freshmen running backs who have fans screaming, "Gurshall." But amidst the myriad of storylines for Georgia's season, the play of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray exceeds them all.
The junior's story is well-known by now. His career has been marked by brilliant statistics, then discredited by inopportune losses. Murray has already shattered the school record books, and has now moved on to the conference marks. He leads the nation in passer efficiency and holds school records for single-season touchdowns (35) and overall touchdowns (89).
But Murray has also been plagued by a 3-9 record against ranked opponents and the unshakeable notion that he can't win the proverbial "big game." Those first two victories over ranked opponents came against No. 24 Auburn and No. 25 Georgia Tech last season, and the third came in a 17-9 victory over No. 2 Florida earlier this year. But though Murray passed for the game-winning touchdown against the Gators, he also threw three interceptions and completed only 50 percent of his passes.
Murray will be the second Georgia quarterback to play in back-to-back SEC titles, after David Greene accomplished the same feat from 2002-2003. If he can win one, he would join rare company for Georgia, which has won two SEC Championship games, in 2002 and 2005. If he wins the national title, his victories would finally match his statistics in declaring him the best quarterback in Georgia history.
His work can easily be erased though -- a loss would cause a freefall for Georgia's ranking and its bowl hopes. Murray, even with an inspiring performance, would go down as the quarterback who couldn't win.
Murray asked for permission to be excused from media interviews this week. There was nothing controversial about doing so, though it was surprising, since he had never refused weekly interviews in his three years as a starter. But the message was clear: no distractions. The given reason was that he wanted to have as much time to prepare against Alabama.
With the amount of noise surrounding this game, it's no wonder. The weight of storylines yet to be written has to be crushing, when Murray's history could go from one extreme to the next. With one result, he would be dubbed a champion; with the other, a disappointment.
And, in a sport which deifies the starting quarterback's ability to influence games, only the scoreboard will close the book on Murray's legacy.
Gurley crucial to Georgia's success against Alabama
Todd Gurley has been the revelation that the Bulldogs sorely needed at the tailback position this season.
But if they are to go where they hope, Gurley will need to be a playmaker against No. 2 Alabama in the SEC Championship game Saturday.
It's the natural progression for a running back that burst into the scene in No. 3 Georgia's first game of the season, rushing for two touchdowns and scoring a 100-yard kickoff return to boot. Reach the SEC Championship game? That was expected. But now the hard part -- winning -- will be dependent on whether Georgia's most prominent addition can make a difference.
Gurley runs like a much smaller man, boasting top-level track speed despite being taller than most running backs. He has runs of 55, 51 and 49 yards on the season, bolstering his reputation as a break-away threat. But it will be his size -- all 6-foot-1, 218 pounds of it --which will prove crucial for No. 3 Georgia's chances of upturning Alabama as the top team in the conference.
It's not that Gurley will need to break a big run. Alabama simply won't allow that, with the defense holding conference opponents to 2.4 rushing yards per carry, on average. In fact, the Crimson Tide hasn't allowed a rush longer than 32 yards all season.
But Gurley, who leads conference running backs with 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns, can make this game competitive for Georgia simply with his yards after contact. The Alabama defense, which often dominates the line of scrimmage, will hit Gurley early and often. But if he can manage to squeeze through a few yards after the hit, the line will soften.
The Georgia offense will be placed in more favorable second and third down situations. The Bulldogs could maintain the semblance of balance required to get receivers open downfield and quarterback Aaron Murray, who leads the nation in passing efficiency, would receive the extra time required to complete those passes.
This isn't news for the Georgia offense -- offensive coordinator Mike Bobo maintains a strict balance in order to strike this very chord. The blueprint to winning against Alabama has already been given to Georgia in the form of its earlier matchup against then-No. 2 Florida, a 17-9 victory that came partly as a result of the Bulldogs' suffocating defense.
But the overlooked performance of Todd Gurley in that game could be the difference against the Crimson Tide. Gurley ran for 118 yards on 27 carries against the Gators, with most of the yards mirroring the grind-it-out variety, rather than the bigger gains he has been known for.
His longest run was for 23 yards, but it was Gurley's ability to add extra yards that allowed Georgia to gain 14 first downs, despite only going 1-for-10 on third downs and having three turnovers.
If Gurley can reproduce that type of performance, the Bulldogs may have a chance to win a conference championship. And the freshman running back so readily compared to Georgia legend Herschel Walker would be poised to bring the Bulldogs a championship of his own.