ATHENS – At first, we were going to let Aaron Murray off the hook: He didn’t have to make a pick for the national title game.
“Hey I can pick, come on now,” Murray said, chuckling.
Fair enough. And this time the former Georgia quarterback went for his alma mater, picking it to beat Alabama 17-13 in the National Championship Game on Monday night.
That may diverge from the national sentiment, or at least the betting sentiment. Alabama is a 4-point favorite as of Friday afternoon. And perhaps Murray, excoriated by the fan base after picking UGA to lose to Mississippi State in September, has learned a lesson.
In any case, Murray, the leading passer in Georgia history, agrees with the consensus: It will be a defensive-oriented game.
It’s a similar matchup to 2012, when Murray led UGA into the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, producing an instant classic with the wrong result for Murray’s team. This time around Murray, who now lives in Atlanta, will be there working the game as a media analyst.
“It’s nice. I guess I don’t have to worry about getting hit by Dial at any time, which is a good feeling too right now,” Murray said, referring to the Quinton Dial hit in that game.
Five years later, the teams are basically mirror images. Both are predicated on run games and defense; neither turns it over much.
The one big difference is quarterback, but still only to a point.
“Obviously their guy is a little bit more mobile,” Murray said of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. “But both teams understand that they don’t have to put the team on their back. They just have to distribute the ball, don’t make mistakes, and give them a chance to win the game. They don’t have to be Baker Mayfield.”
But Georgia fans shouldn’t get overconfident by how their offense did against Oklahoma.
Alabama will be much different. Still, Georgia will still have to be consistent in its identity, its former quarterback thinks.
“They’re going to be happy with 3-yard gains, 4-yard gains,” Murray said. “Being ahead of the sticks, not getting in third-and-long situations where you have to get in a five-step drop, putting Jake Fromm in a vulnerable position where he’s 10, 15 feet out of the pocket.”
The underrated factor in the game? Punters, according to Murray.
Both teams have good ones: Georgia’s Cameron Nizialek enters ninth in the nation this year in punting average, and Alabama’s J.K. Scott was one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s most outstanding punter. Both are seniors.
They will loom large in a field position battle, Murray said.
“Which punter can pin an offense inside their 15, inside their 10?” Murray said. “Because the worst thing you can do when you’re playing a great defense is the thought that you have to consistently drive the ball 80 yards down the field, 90 yards down the field. I think the [team] is going to win when a punter is able to pin a team deep. [A defense] is able to get three-and-outs, all of a sudden you flip the field and all of a sudden you’re getting the ball at the 40-yard line, the 50-yard line; you have a short field to work with.”
Finally, there’s the matter of that Georgia quarterback wearing Murray’s old number.
Fromm has drawn comparisons to Murray for a while, not just because they both wear 11, but because of their height, skill set, and work ethic. As he has watched Fromm develop this season, Murray has seen nothing to dissuade the comparison, he said.
“I’m not the biggest kid in the world, I don’t have the strongest arm, I’m not the most athletic,” Murray said, talking about both himself and Fromm. “But I’m going to outwork you. I’m going to be in the film room before you, I’m going to be in the weight room before you, I’m going to be studying the game plan longer than you are. That’s why I feel like I did have success at the University of Georgia. I think [Fromm] put himself in the situation by the way he’s worked ever since he got on campus in January. He’s just outworked everyone on the field. He’s outworked his opponents, week in and week out.
“I think that’s why you see a kid that’s very confident. He knows what he’s doing, he’s able to check from a pass play to a run play, a run play to a [different] run play, all that good stuff. It’s just because he’s outworked everyone. I really appreciate a guy who’s willing to do that.”
Note: Murray’s remembrances of the 2012 game will be in a later story.