ATHENS, Ga. -- We should have known something was up Saturday when Aaron Murray was a no-show for postgame media interviews after Georgia's impressive 42-10 victory over Georgia Tech.
Murray, the junior quarterback from Tampa, is among the most media-friendly players in the SEC. But Murray was nowhere to be found after the last home game of the year at Sanford Stadium. And on Monday he asked for -- and received -- permission to skip his normal media commitments this week in advance of Saturday's SEC Championship Game between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia in Atlanta.
Now when the quarterback of the No. 3 team in the country goes silent before the SEC title game it doesn't make us media types very happy. But I'm prepared to cut the kid some slack. That's because it is not an overstatement to say that Aaron Murray is getting ready to play in the biggest football game of his life. It is also the biggest game Georgia has played since the Bulldogs faced Penn State for the 1982 national championship in what was Herschel Walker's last college football game. Penn State won 27-23.
It is Georgia's most significant game in three decades because if the Bulldogs (11-1) find a way to beat Alabama (11-1), the defending national champions, the Bulldogs will play Notre Dame for the BCS national championship. That's pretty heady stuff.
And here is another reality: If Georgia is going to pull off the upset, it will need a better-than-average game from Murray.
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All in all, it has been an interesting year for Murray, who last week became the first quarterback in SEC history to throw for more than 3,000 in three consecutive seasons. He also threw two more touchdown passes, giving him 89 in three seasons, second in SEC history to Danny Wuerffel's 114 (1993-96).
He arrives at the SEC Championship Game as one of the nation's hottest quarterbacks, completing 79 of his past 113 passes (69.9 percent) with 14 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
But on Oct. 6, many vocal members of Bulldog Nation were expressing their doubts about Aaron Murray. He struggled (mostly because he had Jadeveon Clowney draped over him for most of the night) in a 35-7 loss at South Carolina. He completed only 11 of 31 passes for 109 yards, one of the worst performances of his career. The loss gave Murray a 2-9 record as a starting quarterback against teams ranked in the Top 25.
Murray returned to Athens to find that some idiot had egged the apartment that he shared with some other players.
"You learn to live with it," Murray told me after Georgia's win at Auburn on Nov. 10. "People care deeply and they don't like to lose. I don't like to lose."
About that same time Murray learned that his father, Denny, had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Murray would later tweet that it had been "the worst 12 hours of my life." Denny Murray had surgery and Aaron later tweeted that he was doing well.
"Aaron is a tough guy. A lot tougher than people think," wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell said.
So when Georgia was getting ready to play No. 3 Florida on Oct. 27, the label of "good stat guy, but can't win the big one" continued to stick to Murray. And things only got worse when Murray threw three interceptions in the first half against the Gators.
"Part of the problem was with us," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "We had been focusing too hard on telling Aaron to protect the ball, not to make a mistake. You can't play like that. If we were going to go down, we were going to do it with Aaron being aggressive."
In the second half against Florida, Murray was more relaxed, completing 8 of 16 passes against one of the best defenses in the country. He put the game away -- a 17-9 Georgia victory -- with a short out route that Malcolm Mitchell turned into a 45-yard touchdown.
Since halftime of the Florida game, Murray has been mistake-free.
"Aaron has done an incredible job for us," said Georgia coach Mark Richt. "He gets us out of the wrong play and into the right play, which is what a quarterback has to do these days. The days of calling the play in the huddle and hoping that it's right -- those are over. Aaron sometimes gets in trouble when he tries to do too much. Sometimes you just need to throw the ball away or run it and live to play another down. He's gotten a lot better at that."
But the reality is that Murray has had his struggles against elite defenses in the Southeastern Conference. A year ago when Georgia played South Carolina in Athens he had three turnovers and all led to points in a 45-42 loss. In last year's SEC Championship Game against LSU, Murray had a couple of potential touchdown passes dropped early. He completed only 16 of 40 passes for 163 yards and two interceptions. Against the two best defenses he has faced this season (No. 5 Florida, No. 13 South Carolina) he completed 41.8 percent of his passes with four interceptions. Against everybody else Murray completed 71.7 percent with 29 touchdowns and three interceptions.
While Murray put up impressive numbers this November, it should be noted that Georgia's four opponents were Mississippi (No. 48 defense), Auburn (No. 82), Georgia Southern (FCS) and Georgia Tech (No. 59).
In big games like this, Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart almost always put in some new things that the quarterback has not seen. The hope is that it will take the quarterback at least a half to figure it out and make the adjustments.
Murray is the classic gym rat when it comes to film study. On Saturday nights after home games Murray has dinner with his family and then goes back to the football complex to watch the game tape while it is still fresh on his mind. He will take several pages of notes that he will organize and study before he meets with Bobo on Monday to assess what went right and what went wrong.
"The one thing I never worry about with Aaron is whether or not he'll be prepared," said Bobo. "If it is on the tape he'll see it and he'll know what we need to do. He is an incredible student of the game."
Murray will study what LSU's Zach Mettenberger, his former rival for the starting job at Georgia, did against Alabama. Mettenberger had his breakout game against the Crimson Tide, completing 24 of 35 passes for 298 yards and at touchdown. He'll study what Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M did in Tuscaloosa (24 of 31 for 253 yards, 2 TD). Neither quarterback threw an interception against Alabama.
Murray has had a lot of big moments as Georgia's quarterback. He is only the second quarterback in Georgia history to take the Bulldogs to two straight SEC Championship Games (David Greene is the other). When Georgia beat Florida in October, Murray became the first quarterback to beat the Gators two straight times since John Lastinger (1982-83). If Murray returns to school next season and stays healthy, he will leave as Georgia's all-time leading passer. He has 9,339 yards now. The Georgia record is held by Greene (11,528).
But greatness as a football player is not defined by statistics. Great players are defined by their performances when the spotlight shines the brightest, when everything is on the line. Saturday's game against Alabama is just such a moment for Aaron Murray. Every practice, every wind sprint, every late-night film session when his buddies were out partying was preparing Aaron Murray for the 60 minutes of football he'll play on Saturday afternoon.
Good or bad, he will remember it for the rest of his life.
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on The CBS Sports Network.