Title quest for Georgia, Aaron Murray set to begin

Now he’s hope personified for the Bulldog Nation.

They’ve seen Murray lead them to the brink of an SEC championship — and by default, maybe a national title — a year ago when they fell 5 yards and a few seconds short against Alabama. And now that he has returned for his senior season, they desperately want to see if he can seal the deal.

The first step toward that begins Saturday night in Clemson, S.C. No. 5 Georgia draws the No. 8 Clemson Tigers in an opener that has ABC’s 8 p.m. prime-time TV slot and the pregame presence of ESPN’s “College Gameday.”

But if the weight of the world is on Murray’s shoulders as he and Georgia enter “Death Valley,” you would never know it. As the Bulldogs prepared for the first of what could be three top-10 matchups in the first four games of the season, Murray spoke like the grizzled veteran he is, like a man who has been through this spiel.

“It’s going to be a fun game; it’s going to be a fun environment,” said Murray, who will play in his 42nd college game, all of them as a starter. “… It brought a lot of excitement into this offseason and helped inspire us to work extra hard this summer. We knew we had to be in midseason form in Week 1, and that’s why we prepared like we did all summer. We’re ready.”

What makes the whole affair more intriguing is that Murray has a doppelganger on the other sideline. The path to Saturday’s game is almost identical for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. He, too, is a fifth-year senior who has led his team to the brink of greatness only to come up short the past two seasons.

Boyd (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) is slightly bigger than Murray (6-1, 210), and he runs quite a bit more. But their statistics — including winning record — are eerily similar, as are their leadership styles and the respect they command from coaches and teammates.

You can wait to see it on ABC’s flashy graphics or read it here. Past two seasons: Murray 22-6, 7,042 yards passing, 71 touchdowns; Boyd 21-6, 7,724 yards, 69 touchdowns.

“If you like quarterback play, I imagine a lot of people will really enjoy this game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You’ve got two guys that are very accomplished and have played a bunch of games. They’ve won big games, and they’ve lost some big games, too. They have complete control of their offensive systems and have complete respect of their coaches, teammates and fan bases. It should be interesting.

“If you’re looking for a subplot, that’s a pretty good one.”

The convergence of these players’ paths began in their teens. They’ve known each other since the summer between their junior and senior years in high school.

They met as ballyhooed recruiting prospects at the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp. Several months later they were teammates on the U.S. Army high school All-American team. They exchanged phone numbers then and have stayed in touch off-and-on since then.

“We talked a lot during the offseason, but very rarely about the game,” Murray said. “We just talk about the normal quarterback stuff, talking ball. He’s a great quarterback. What he’s been able to do the last two or three years says everything.”

Murray’s done a thing or two as well. The SEC’s most seasoned quarterback enters his final season as the NCAA’s active leader with 95 career touchdown passes and ranks fourth with a career passing efficiency rating of 158.6. If he stays healthy this season he should leave Georgia as the SEC’s all-time leader for passing yards and touchdown passes, among other stats. He’s the first quarterback in SEC history to throw for more than 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, with 10,091 total.

But Murray has maintained since announcing his decision to return in January, it’s not about the records and it’s not about outdoing Boyd on national TV.

“We won’t be on the field at the same time,” Murray said. “It’s our offense against their defense and our defense against their offense. If he throws six touchdowns and I throw none, but Todd (Gurley) and Keith (Marshall) run for eight touchdowns, we win the game. I’d take that in a second. I win. If we win, I could care less whose stats are better, and he’ll answer the question the same way.

“It’s about winning our senior year. Both of us are looking to go out with a championship. Both of us have had the stats, we’ve had those years. We’re both looking to win some championships now, and that’s all that matters.”

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