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June 3, 2010

Murray Should Have Opportunity for Rare Feat

There has been some discussion concerning Aaron Murray - a quarterback who has yet to take a collegiate snap - facing South Carolina on the road in Georgia's second game of the upcoming season.  If the young quarterback and the Bulldogs can escape Columbia with a victory, it is assumed, Georgia and Murray could very well be on their way to a successful year. 
I immediately think of Quincy Carter in 1998.  Entering the season, he had yet to play on the college level and, in his first true "test" of the season, faced South Carolina on the road.  Carter and Georgia (primarily its defense) had seemingly no problem handling the Gamecocks that night and the Bulldogs went on to a respectable 9-3 campaign. 

With Murray in mind and including Carter, I went back in recent Bulldogs history and discovered the occasions when a new quarterback, who would start the season opener after never having taken a snap at Georgia, faced his first true test of the year.  

As will probably be the case of Georgia's 2010 meeting with South Carolina, a first "test" isn't necessarily always the first game of the year but (as defined by me) the first contest where the Bulldogs were the underdog or favored by less than 10 points, whether playing at home or on the road.  I started with 1973 - the first season college football point spreads are readily available.  

After starting and performing well in Georgia's season-opening game of 1974 against lowly Oregon State, sophomore Dicky Clark struggled in his first test as a Bulldog against Mississippi State at night in Jackson, MS.  Georgia, four-point favorites, were soundly defeated 38-14 in the team's worst conference loss in more than 10 years.  Clark was 3-of-5 passing for 66 yards and rushed for a touchdown; however, he was constantly pressured, getting sacked several times, fumbling once and throwing an interception. 

Along with fellow sophomore quarterback Matt Robinson, Clark's performance incited a teammate following the loss to declare, "our quarterbacks looked like s--t."  Not only was the game Clark's last start at quarterback but he would never throw another pass at Georgia, playing sparingly under center for the rest of the season in favor of Robinson and another sophomore, Ray Goff.  In the off-season, Clark was moved to defensive end, where he would eventually earn All-SEC honors as a senior in 1976. 

Like Dicky Clark just three years earlier, sophomore Jeff Pyburn, never having taken a varsity snap from center, started a season at quarterback for the Bulldogs against a substandard team from Oregon.  And, like Clark, Pyburn played well in victory (a 27-16 win over Oregon) before losing the next week to a quality opponent.

Pyburn and the Bulldogs entered their second contest of 1977 versus Clemson as 9.5-point favorites and having not lost to the Tigers in Athens in 17 consecutive games and since 1914.  In Georgia's 7-6 loss, Pyburn passed for only 69 yards, threw two interceptions, lost a fumble, and was stopped for no gain on 4th down and short from the Tigers' 13-yard line.  He did pass for the Bulldogs' only score with just seconds remaining but then threw incomplete on a two-point conversion attempt for the win. 

By default, redshirt freshman Wayne Johnson started the 1985 season opener against Alabama when Georgia's top three quarterbacks were all injured.  The Bulldogs - 1.5-point underdogs at home - trailed 13-3 when Johnson, who had been benched earlier in the game for an injured James Jackson, was reinserted and rallied the team in the fourth quarter. 

In one of Georgia's most heartbreaking losses in recent memory, the Bulldogs took a 16-13 late lead only to allow Alabama's Bell to toll.  In defeat, Johnson completed 8 of 13 passes for 82 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.  He would start Georgia's next two games - victories over Baylor and Clemson - only to be benched again for Jackson.  

Following a blowout win over Kent to begin the 1998 season, Georgia and relatively unproven Quincy Carter took on South Carolina at night and on the road as 5.5-point favorites.  Carter completed only half of his 18 passes for 133 yards, no touchdowns, and was intercepted once.  However, the freshman quarterback rushed for both of the game's only touchdowns while gaining 53 yards on 12 carries in a 17-3 win.

More impressive than Carter, was Georgia's defense, which held the Gamecocks to only 132 yards of total offense. 

After an easy win over Arkansas State, Georgia hosted South Carolina as two-point underdogs.  Since 1996, it remains one of only three games the Bulldogs have been underdogs at Sanford Stadium.

Georgia's could muster only three field goals in a 14-9 loss to the Gamecocks.  In his brilliant four-year career, David Greene, a redshirt freshman at the time, had one of his worst performances as a Bulldog, completing 21 of 33 passes for just 169 yards, and throwing one interception.  Greene would bounce back and, like Carter three seasons before, would later be recognized as the conference's freshman of the year.
What do the aforementioned first true tests for Bulldog quarterbacks have in common?

Four of the five games were Georgia losses.  And the one victory versus South Carolina in '98 was against a team that would eventually finish its season with a 1-10 record.  The four setbacks were against good teams; teams that would win a combined 75 percent of its games, all go to bowls, and finish their seasons with an average ranking of nearly 15th in the AP Poll. 

South Carolina should be pretty good this season.  Maybe not good enough to win three-fourths of its games or finish 2010 ranked, but a more than decent team, who likely won't just hand a victory to the Bulldogs when they venture into Williams-Brice Stadium on September 11th. 

If Murray starts against the Gamecocks (barring injury, he most likely will), he'll definitely have his work cut out for him in Columbia.  With a win, he'll join Quincy Carter as the only two Georgia quarterbacks in the last 38 seasons with no experience entering the year, who were victorious in their initial true test.

In addition, in victory, Murray will become the first, inexperienced Bulldog quarterback since 1973, who guided his team to a win versus a worthy opponent.

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