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Best Pocket Passer: Murray vs. McCarron

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Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For all the attention garnered by Johnny Manziel last season, the competition for best quarterback in the SEC isn’t all that one-sided. Both Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron will challenge Manziel for the conference’s top player under center. But which of those two is the most likely to usurp Manziel? Or, put another way, who is the best prototypical pocket passer in the SEC?

Both Murray and McCarron are going into their senior seasons, both play for quality teams replete with offensive weapons and both will enter the 2013 season as Heisman contenders. Their closeness in quality is best illustrated in a tit-for-tat structure arguing for one player’s credentials and then the other. It may not lead to a definitive answer as to who is better, but it should capture why each has a strong case to make in terms of being the best SEC quarterback.

Aaron Murray has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in each of his three years at Georgia. Even as a freshman at an SEC school, he totaled 3,049 yards on 209 completions. As a sophomore that aerial yardage grew to 3,149, and then last year Murray threw for 3,893 yards. From his first season with the Bulldogs, Murray has been a huge part of the offense.

AJ McCarron, unlike Murray, had to wait in line before he got his shot as the primary play-caller. True, in the two full seasons that McCarron has started for Alabama, he’s failed to throw for more than 3,000 yards, but McCarron’s strength is efficiency. Last season his passing yardage may have only been 2,933, but McCarron’s completion percentage was 67.2 percent. As a sophomore starter, McCarron completed passes at 66.8 percent. Aaron Murray, meanwhile, never has completed more than 65 percent of his passes.

Murray is more apt to throw deep downfield. He averaged 10.1 yards per attempt in 2012 compared to McCarron’s 9.3. That explains Murray’s higher passing yardage and inferior completion percentage. But it isn’t as if Murray lacks accuracy. Last season Murray completed 64.5 percent and even as a freshman he completed 61.1 percent of his passes.

If it’s a classic case of more yardage versus a better completion percentage, then why not look at touchdowns? After all, the offense’s goal is to score, and McCarron threw for 30 touchdowns last season.

Impressive, but it’s short of what Murray did in both his sophomore and junior campaigns. Murray threw for 35 touchdowns in 2011 and upped it to 36 last season as a junior. Even as a freshman, Murray notched 24 touchdowns. Compare that to McCarron’s first year as the starter when he only managed 16.

Again, Murray may have the advantage in raw numbers, but they don’t tell the whole story. En route to throwing for more touchdowns than McCarron, Murray racked up interceptions. Last year, Murray turned it over through the air 10 times. The year before he gave up 14 interceptions. McCarron, one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks, threw just three picks last year and only five in the season prior. For his carreer McCarron has a mere eight interceptions. Murray has thrown at least eight interceptions in every season.

To be fair to Murray, two of his 10 interceptions last year came in the bowl game against Nebraska. In that game he also had five touchdown passes. That’s his modus operandi in a nutshell, go big or go home.

What could be bigger than throwing for 264 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in the national championship game? That’s what McCarron did to help lead Alabama to a second championship with him under center.

Murray has the brighter future. The only offensive starter that Georgia lost was receiver Tavarres King. The rest of the receiving corps is back, the entire offensive line returns and the dual backfield threat of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall will force defenses to pull up toward the line of scrimmage. That means even more deep balls thrown over the top of man coverage by Aaron Murray.

Alabama may have to fill some holes on the offensive line, but it’s not as if McCarron is without weapons. His three favorite targets, Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper, are all back for the 2013 campaign and TJ Yeldon is set to be the next in a long line of star running backs for the Tide.

All sides can agree that both Murray and McCarron are primed for big seasons. In fact, no one would be surprised if Gerogia and Alabama squared off the in the SEC championship game once again. But who comes out as the best pocket passer in America’s best football conference?

Murray may have the gaudy numbers, but unless he can topple Alabama from the top rank of the SEC, it’s hard to argue with McCarron’s two national championships.