Alabama Crimson Tide: Aaron Murray
Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAlabama's AJ McCarron falls in the top five of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is an easy choice as the SEC's top quarterback heading into the 2013 season. He won the Heisman Trophy last season as a redshirt freshman.
But what if you were picking the best NFL draft prospect at quarterback from this league for next year?
ESPN's Brock Huard has done just that, and he has Georgia's Aaron Murray at the top of his list . In fact, Huard has Murray No. 3 nationally behind Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Clemson's Tajh Boyd.
Obviously, the Texas A&M and Alabama fans won't agree with Huard, but Murray is one of those quarterbacks who has probably drawn more criticism than he's deserved. There's a reason he's thrown for 10,091 career yards, 95 touchdowns (and 32 interceptions). He's talented, tough, smart and durable, not to mention the only quarterback in SEC history to have thrown for 3,000 yards in three straight seasons.
But as Huard points out, the big challenge for Murray in 2013 will be playing his best football in the Bulldogs' biggest games. In games against Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, Murray has a combined 2-5 TD-to-INT ratio.
Huard has Alabama's AJ McCarron No. 6 overall in his ranking of the top quarterback draft prospects for 2014 and Manziel No. 7.
Manziel, who will be a third-year sophomore, is a lot higher on other people's draft lists for 2014. He obviously doesn't have ideal size, but his ability to create and make plays when there seemingly aren't any to make is a trait they're looking for at all levels of football.
The even harder question in the SEC is: Who would be the fourth quarterback on that list?
Again, these aren't necessarily the top SEC quarterbacks going into next season, but quarterbacks with a chance to emerge as NFL draft choices.
Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.
But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.
No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.
Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.
The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.
A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.
Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:
The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.
The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.
Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.
Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.
Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.
The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.
Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.
And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.
Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.
They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.
Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.
The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.
But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?
So start casting those votes in our SportsNation poll, and we'll go over the results in the next few days.
Here are the five candidates:
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama: He looked like a crimson-and-white bulldozer running over Notre Dame defenders on his way to 140 rushing yards in Alabama's 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship. His 20-yard touchdown romp three minutes into the game set the tone for what was an utter mismatch.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football put on a post-Heisman Trophy show with a Cotton Bowl-record 516 yards of total offense in the Aggies' 41-13 demolition of Oklahoma. He accounted for four touchdowns and set an FBS bowl record with 229 rushing yards on 17 carries. Manziel joined Vince Young as the only two players in history to rush for more than 200 yards and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: His start to the game was shaky, as Murray threw two interceptions in the first quarter. But he came roaring back to set Georgia bowl records with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 45-31 victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Murray was lights-out on third down and threw two of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to break a 31-31 tie.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron obviously likes the big stages. After winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors in last season's BCS National Championship, he followed up that performance with four touchdown passes against Notre Dame last week to lead the Tide to their second consecutive national title. He directed touchdown drives on each of Alabama's first three possessions and was 8-of-9 passing in those three drives.
Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina: In what turned out to be Sanders' farewell to the Gamecocks, he scored three touchdowns in their 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. He had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown and caught a pair of scoring passes. He also had a clutch fourth-down catch to keep South Carolina's game-winning drive alive and finished with nine receptions for 92 yards.
What can we expect in the SEC in 2013?
Let me look into my crystal ball and give you a few bold predictions to write down in ink. OK, maybe in pencil:
The SEC will make it eight in a row: Yep, the SEC will run its streak to eight straight national championships, leaving the rest of college football to wonder whether it should create its own league. Who’s it going to be? We can’t give everything away this early.
Everybody will predict the SEC’s streak will end: This is the surest bet out there. Get ready to hear all the pundits spouting off about how the SEC’s run is finally coming to an end. Promises, promises.
Alabama won’t go unbeaten: It won’t be the end of the world for the Crimson Tide, who lost a game each of the past two seasons and still managed to win the national championship. Getting through the SEC gantlet unscathed simply doesn’t happen very often.
Kim Klement/USA TODAYJadeveon Clowney will be a force to contend with next season.
Manziel-mania: Where do we start with Johnny Football? For one, he will lead the SEC in rushing again even though defenses will do everything they can to keep him in the pocket, and he will be the most must-see player in college football. But we're not ready to jump out there and predict that he will win a second straight Heisman Trophy. At least, not yet. There's a reason only one person has done that.
Auburn bounces back: Gus Malzahn has hired a first-rate staff on the Plains, and the Tigers aren’t lacking for talent. Look for them to bounce back and win eight games next season.
Record-setting Murray: Now that he’s coming back for his senior season, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will obliterate just about every SEC career passing record. Murray has 10,091 passing yards. The record is 11,528, held by Georgia’s David Greene. Murray has 95 touchdown passes. The record of 114 is held by Florida’s Danny Wuerffel. Murray has 696 completions. The record is 895, held by Florida’s Chris Leak. The one record Murray won’t challenge is career interceptions. He has 32 entering the 2013 season, but Georgia’s Zeke Bratkowski threw 68 picks from 1951 to '53.
South Carolina’s starting quarterback: Good luck with that one. Connor Shaw will miss the spring because of foot surgery, and Dylan Thompson was clutch against Clemson and then against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Something says the Head Ball Coach will find a way to play them both. Just a hunch.
Bayou Blues: Nobody is predicting that LSU will fall completely off the radar next season. There’s too much young talent in the program, and Les Miles’ track record of consistency speaks for itself. But with a killer schedule and 10 underclassmen leaving early for the NFL draft, the Tigers will fail to win 10 games for the first time since 2009.
Going bowling: We predicted a second straight bowl appearance for Vanderbilt this time a year ago and heard a few snickers around the league. Who’s laughing now? The Commodores will make it three straight bowl appearances in 2013.
Breaking out: If you’re looking for some of the top breakout players in the league next season, keep an eye on Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, Vanderbilt offensive tackle Wesley Johnson, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, Alabama noseguard Darren Lake, LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams.
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: What will Johnny Football do for an encore? After becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, after setting the SEC record for total yards (5,116), all eyes will be on Manziel in his second year as the Aggies' quarterback. He'll be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and two big receiving targets. But Manziel will probably still be one of the slipperiest players in the country. If he grows more as a passer, watch out, because he'll be even more dangerous in 2013.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It should come as no surprise AJ McCarron has opted to return to the University of Alabama for his senior season. While the junior quarterback is among the best -- and maybe more appropriately the most efficient -- signal-callers in the country, his play down the stretch has done little to help his NFL draft stock.
As coach Nick Saban is oft to suggest to his players, you don't leave school early unless you are poised to go in the first round of the draft. It would have come as a shock if McCarron were to come off the board that early, leapfrogging the likes of West Virginia's Geno Smith, Southern Cal's Matt Barkley, Florida State's E.J. Manuel, Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and possibly Georgia's Aaron Murray.
"To me, he certainly doesn't look like a first-round pick," ESPN college football and draft analyst Kevin Weidl explained. Weidl said he'd start with the third round for McCarron at this point: "He needs to get stronger, sturdier in the pocket and improve some accuracy issues I saw at times."
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesHad AJ McCarron left Alabama early for the NFL, Nick Saban would have lacked a QB with experience.
"He showed very good maturity in looking at all of the factors and making an informed decision on his future," Saban said in a released statement. "He has a chance to add to what he has already accomplished here while also better preparing himself for the next level. We’re excited to have him back for his senior season."
By returning for another season, McCarron has the chance to solidify his position as one of the best quarterback prospects in the country. His 173.08 passer rating was tops in college football this season. The only thing remaining for him to prove is consistency and measurables he might face at the NFL combine.
1. Alabama (12-1; last week: 1): No, Alabama wasn't perfect in its 32-28 victory against Georgia in the SEC title game, but talk about resolve. This team trailed by 11 in the second half, but fought back with a punishing running game and just wore down one of the most talented defenses around to throw itself into the Discover BCS National Championship against Notre Dame. The Crimson Tide will now play for their second national championship in a row, and third in four years.
2. Florida (11-1; LW: 3): The Gators didn't win their division and weren't in Atlanta, but it's hard to find a team with a better résumé. Florida finished the season with four wins against teams currently ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings. Three of them are in the top 10. Florida is headed to a BCS bowl for the first time since 2009. The Gators will face Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Here we are again talking about another potential national championship for the SEC.
Weren’t we having this same conversation last year, the year before that and the year before that?
In fact, does anybody really remember the last time we weren’t having this conversation?
The BCS Championship Game festivities will again include an SEC team this season, and once again, it’s Alabama carrying the banner for the league.
ATLANTA -- In what lacked the defense of a usual SEC game, No. 2 Alabama outlasted No. 3 Georgia 32-28 to claim the 2012 SEC championship. Alabama is now headed to Miami to face No. 1 Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7.
Alabama's game-winning score came on a 45-yard pass from AJ McCarron to a wide-open Amari Cooper with 3 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was over when: After driving down to Alabama's 8-yard line, Aaron Murray threw a pass to Chris Conley at the 5-yard line that was tipped. Conley came down with the ball with 5 seconds remaining, but time expired before Georgia could run one last play.
Game ball goes to: If you looked up the word "workhorse" in the dictionary, you'd find a picture of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon next to it. Lacy rushed for 181 yards on 20 carries and had two touchdowns. He registered 176 of those yards through the first three quarters, averaging 10.4 a carry during that time. Alabama's offense was at its best when Lacy touched the ball the majority of times on drives. Yeldon, only a freshman, carried the ball 25 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. His first-down run on third-and-5 on Alabama's final scoring drive set up the Tide's game-winning touchdown.
Stat of the game: Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) outrushed Georgia 350-113 and averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the process -- a new rushing record for the SEC championship game. Georgia (11-2, 7-1) averaged just 3.9 yards per carry. That makes three consecutive games in which Georgia's defense surrendered 300-plus yards on the ground.
Best call: On the first play of the second quarter, Georgia coach Mark Richt stepped out of his shell and called a fake punt on fourth-and-10 at Alabama's 36-yard line. Tight end Arthur Lynch took the snap and zipped a pass to cornerback Sanders Commings for 16 yards. Two plays later, Murray threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jay Rome to give the Bulldogs the early 7-0 lead.
What it means for Alabama: The win assures the Tide of making their second straight national championship game and third in four years. Alabama, which is second in the BCS standings, will face top-ranked Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
What it means for Georgia: The Bulldogs will miss out on a BCS bowl game and could be headed to the AT&T Cotton Bowl to take on a Big 12 opponent. The last time Georgia was in the Cotton Bowl was 1983, when the Bulldogs beat Texas 10-9.
Alabama: It's hard to believe AJ McCarron is only a junior starting in his first SEC Championship. It seems like so long ago that he took over the reins from Greg McElroy and became the first underclassman to start and win the BCS National Championship Game. He learned how to treat big games like any other. The let-it-rip attitude has paid off this season as he ranks No. 2 in the country in passing efficiency while setting a school record for touchdown passes in a season.
Georgia: Junior Aaron Murray has already put together one of the best seasons in school history. Last week he became the first player in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three straight seasons and tied Peyton Manning for second in career touchdown passes with 89. The national leader in passing efficiency (177.15), he has thrown 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The big question against Alabama, however, is whether Murray can play loose enough to be effective. He struggled against South Carolina and Florida, with one touchdown and four interceptions.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Saturday's matchup between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia likely will be no different, as the Crimson Tide's offensive line, arguably the best in the country, battles with the Bulldogs defensive front that is equal parts size and skill.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesBlocking John Jenkins will be a key for Alabama getting its running game going.
This weekend Jones will face a nose guard similar to the former 6-foot-5, 365-pound All-American. He might not be a mountain, but John Jenkins is surely a load. The 6-foot-3, 351-pound senior has helped Georgia to a top-25 defense.
"He's hard to block," UA coach Nick Saban explained. "Any time you play an odd defense, a 3-4 defense and can't block the nose guard, makes it hard to run a lot of plays. He reminds me a lot of Cody when we had him here."
Jones doesn't compare well to anyone in Alabama's past, perhaps because he has played so many positions. But nevertheless, Georgia coach Mark Richt is aware of the defending Outland Trophy winner's presence at center.
"He's a fantastic player, obviously," Richt said of Jones. "You know, very versatile. All of a sudden he's playing center when he was playing some tackle in the past. To have a guy like that, a senior leader, up front, right where you need him, right down the middle, is huge.
"No doubt, he's got the ability to block a big man like [Jenkins] because he's a big man himself. A lot of centers aren't quite as big as he is. I think it's going to be an advantage for him to have a better chance to man up against a big nose guard like that."
But Jones is defined by more than his size, said Saban.
"He's an extremely smart player," Saban explained. "This is his first year playing center, but he's done a really good job for us. His efficiency as a blocker, whoever he's had to block, has been really good for us this year."
The Jones-Jenkins matchup is the focus, but the entire line is filled with intrigue. When Jenkins goes out, he is spelled by another 350-plus pound nose guard -- Kwame Gaethers.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesGeorgia's Aaron Murray will show off his skills in the biggest game of his collegiate career Saturday.
2. Making plays at receiver: Both teams have suffered casualties at receiver this season. Most recently, Alabama lost Kenny Bell for the season when he broke his leg last week against Auburn. Georgia earlier this season lost Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown to injuries. Tavarres King has quietly had a big season for the Bulldogs with eight touchdown catches, and Malcolm Mitchell will also be key in this game with his ability to make big plays down the field. More than ever, Alabama will lean on freshman Amari Cooper in the passing game with Bell out. Cooper has eight touchdown catches and is averaging 17 yards per catch. Alabama coach Nick Saban is also prepared to pull the redshirt off Chris Black, who hurt his shoulder in August and underwent surgery. Black is healthy and wants to play in this game.
3. Denting Alabama’s defense: Alabama leads the country in scoring defense for the second straight season. One of the reasons why is that the Crimson Tide simply don’t give up big plays. They have allowed 89 plays this season that have gained 10 yards or more, which is nine fewer than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team. Opponents are averaging 1.9 drives per game against Alabama that reach the red zone, the lowest average among FBS teams. Running the ball in the red zone against Alabama has been nearly impossible. The Crimson Tide are allowing 0.82 yards per rush in the red zone this season, the lowest average in FBS. What makes this such an intriguing matchup is that Georgia has specialized in generating big plays on offense. The Bulldogs have 75 plays that have gained 20 yards or more, which ranks seventh among FBS teams. The only game this season that they didn’t have a play of at least 30 yards was their 35-7 loss to South Carolina.
4. Winning the big ones: This is a stage Alabama is accustomed to being on, and the Crimson Tide have been at their best in marquee games under Saban. They are 3-1 against nationally ranked teams this season and have won nine of their past 11 games against nationally ranked foes. Georgia, on the other hand, has faced just two nationally ranked teams this season. The Bulldogs beat Florida 17-9 and lost to South Carolina 35-7. Georgia has struggled the past few seasons against nationally ranked opponents, losing eight of its last 11 games to teams ranked in the Top 25. The win over Florida on Oct. 27 was Georgia’s first win against a top-10 opponent since the 2009 season and its first win against an SEC team ranked in the top 10 since beating No. 9 Florida 42-30 in 2007.
5. Forcing turnovers: It’s no coincidence that Alabama and Georgia lost the turnover battle in each of their losses this season. Alabama turned the ball over three times in its 29-24 loss to Texas A&M, which didn’t turn the ball over at all. Georgia had one turnover and South Carolina none in the Bulldogs’ loss to the Gamecocks. Which defense can force the most turnovers in this game? Alabama has scored 157 points off turnovers this season, the most in the SEC and fourth most in the FBS. For the season, Alabama is plus-14 and Georgia plus-9 in turnover margin. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has thrown just two interceptions all season, and both came in the Texas A&M loss. Murray has thrown seven interceptions this season but hasn’t thrown any in five of his last six outings. The exception was the Florida game when he threw three.