If you had asked Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray on Oct. 2 if he thought it was possible he would lead his Bulldogs into Saturday's showdown against Florida with their SEC East title hopes still alive, he would have told you yes.
Though the Bulldogs were 1-4 at the time, Murray always knew that Georgia was a much better team than it was showing and that given time and hard work things would work out.
It turns out he was right. Georgia has won three in a row and is playing its best football.
"Definitely we are feeling good right now," said Murray, a former Parade All-America quarterback at Plant High who passed for more than 4,000 yards in his junior season. "We're on a streak right now where we're playing great offensively, defensively and special teams. We're feeling great as a team right now. Everyone is doing their part and working hard. … We're confident; we're not cocky. We know we've still got a long way to go, but we're starting to build some confidence back up in ourselves."
And for good reason. In the Bulldogs' four wins, they have averaged 45.8 points, compared with 17.3 points in the losses. And Georgia's defense has allowed 13 points per game in the wins. Murray is the nation's second-ranked freshman in passing efficiency and has been named SEC freshman of the week twice. Georgia coach Mark Richt said the staff made a conscious decision not to throw too much at Murray too soon but admits he has exceeded expectations.
"I think his progression has been very good from the very beginning," Richt said. "I think we're asking him to do more than we were in the beginning. We were cautious with him early on. … He's been able to handle most everything we've thrown at him to this point."
That's not to say that things have been easy for the redshirt freshman.
"It was rough," he said. "That four-game stretch wasn't what we envisioned for our season. We definitely thought we had a team that could contend for an SEC championship and a national championship. We felt we had all the parts, but we just weren't performing to our abilities. … We've been more consistent in our games, protecting the football — I haven't had any turnovers in three games. These past three games, this is what we envisioned our season to be like."
Murray is No. 5 in the SEC in passing efficiency (157.0), passing yards per game (220.8) and total offense (241.4). Murray said learning to trust his offensive line and understanding his reads have been key to his improvement in the past few weeks. He said enrolling early last year, then watching and learning as a redshirt have helped accelerate his learning curve.
The Gators say his improvement is evident on film.
"He's a good young quarterback," said UF linebacker Jon Bostic, who played with Murray in the U.S. Army All-Star Game. "He's got good feet; he's got a strong arm."
"He's a great quarterback, probably the best we've faced up to date this year," senior safety Ahmad Black said. "He makes plays out of nothing. When he doesn't have anything, he takes off. He likes to run a little bit."
Along with everything that's on the line for Georgia, Murray will make his collegiate debut in his home state this weekend.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's a game I've been looking forward to, to come back to Florida. I've got a lot of friends and family that are going to be at the game. It's going to be exciting. I've got some friends that go to the University of Florida, and they are joking with me and text messaging me all week, but it's fun. It's going to be a good weekend."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]