UGA needs Aaron Murray's best

ATHENS, Ga. -- After Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray threw three interceptions in the first half against Florida on Oct. 27, Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo pulled him aside in the locker room at halftime.

Despite Murray's mistakes, the Bulldogs had a 7-6 lead over the then-No. 2 Gators, but Bobo knew his quarterback would have to play better if they were going to win.

"We're winning the ballgame and this is where you wanted to be your whole life," Bobo told him. "Turn it loose. If you're going to make a turnover, do it being aggressive."

And then Bobo offered his quarterback this prediction: "Late in the fourth quarter, you've got to win this game."

That's exactly what Murray helped the Bulldogs do, after sophomore Malcolm Mitchell caught a short pass and turned it into a 45-yard touchdown that gave Georgia a 17-9 lead with 7:11 to play. The Bulldogs won the game after linebacker Jarvis Jones knocked the ball out of the hands of Gators tight end Jordan Reed and into the end zone, where it was recovered by cornerback Sanders Commings with just more than two minutes left.

After defeating the Gators for only the fifth time in the past 23 meetings, No. 3 Georgia won its next four games to win the SEC East. It goes into Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome needing to beat No. 2 Alabama to have a chance to play for its first national championship since 1980.

The winner of the SEC championship game will advance to play No. 1 Notre Dame in the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship Game in Miami.

And Murray, a junior from Tampa, Fla., might have to play the game of his life if the Bulldogs are going to upset Alabama, the defending BCS national champion.

"I like the way he's played the last few weeks and the way he has thrown the ball with authority," said Bobo, who played quarterback at UGA from 1993 to 1997. "I think he'll have a lot of confidence. He's excited to play for another championship. He's going to be ready, I promise you."

Few SEC quarterbacks have accomplished more, at least statistically, than Murray, who last week became the first player in league history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Only one other SEC quarterback -- 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel of Florida -- has thrown more touchdowns than Murray's 89; Wuerffel threw 114 from 1993 to 1996.

But there's one mighty blemish on Murray's UGA career: He hasn't played his best in Georgia's biggest games. And Saturday's contest against the Crimson Tide might be the biggest the Bulldogs have played since losing to Penn State 27-23 in the 1983 Sugar Bowl, which cost them their second national championship in three seasons.

"Sometimes, there's a sense that 'I don't want to make a mistake in the big game,' and you play cautious," Bobo said. "I don't want him to play cautious. He's a fourth-year player, and his coaches and teammates have a lot of faith in him to go make plays. I've got confidence in him and his teammates have confidence in him. Cut it loose and have fun."

That's the message Bobo and the rest of Georgia's coaches are preaching to Murray this week. Whether Murray keeps his composure on one of college football's biggest stages -- and against the country's No. 1 defense no less -- might be the biggest factor in whether the Bulldogs can actually win the game.

"We'll see," Mitchell said. "We won the Florida game, and that was a pretty big game. Every SEC game is a big game. I guess we'll find out on Saturday. Aaron is a lot tougher than some people think."

Murray hasn't talked to reporters all week after asking Bulldogs coach Mark Richt to excuse him from his regularly scheduled media interviews. Richt said Murray wanted to focus on his preparations for playing Alabama, but others have suggested he wanted to avoid questions about his inability to win big games in the past.

Murray has a 27-12 record as Georgia's starting quarterback, including a 21-5 mark the past two seasons combined. But the Bulldogs are only 2-7 in their past nine games against top-20 opponents, and Murray completed 53.5 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in those contests.

In Georgia's past five games against top-10 SEC teams, Murray completed 43.9 percent of his attempts with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. UGA's only victory during that stretch was the win over Florida earlier this season.

Murray leads FBS players in pass efficiency with a 177.15 rating and completed 73 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past four games.

Former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier, who now works as a color analyst on UGA's radio network, said it's unfair to blame Murray for the Bulldogs' shortcomings against highly ranked opponents.

"I think it's an unfair knock on him," Zeier said. "When you think about winning big games, it's more than one person. It's about a football team and learning how to win big games. You can go back to the early part of Peyton Manning's career, when he was criticized for not winning the big games, and [Atlanta Falcons quarterback] Matt Ryan is dealing with it now. Winning big games is about teams winning big games."

But fairly or not, quarterbacks aren't remembered for how many yards or touchdowns they threw. They're remembered most for the big games their teams won.

"Quarterbacks, fair or not, get judged on wins and losses and championships," said former UGA quarterback David Greene, who led the Bulldogs to the 2002 SEC championship and left as the NCAA's all-time winningest quarterback with 42 victories (former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore now holds the record with 50 career wins).

"I'm not saying that's fair, because it's a team sport and there's so much that has to happen around a quarterback for him to be successful. But it's just kind of the reality. When you look at NFL and college quarterbacks, people take toward the quarterbacks that have won championships. Those are the legacies that people remember."

Murray's legacy might be written in 60 minutes on Saturday.

"If we don't win on Saturday, is it going to tarnish his legacy? No," Greene said. "What he's done over the last three years has never been done at Georgia. If we win the game, it's just going to add to what he's already done."