On December 22, 2011, USC's Matt Barkley made public his decision that he would return to school for his senior season. It was a surprising decision given his high NFL Draft projection at the time, but his primary motivation in coming back was to go to a BCS bowl. His Trojans had been on a bowl ban the previous two seasons thanks to the Reggie Bush scandal, so they didn't have a shot as of then.
You know the rest of the story. Barkley's final campaign was a living nightmare. It started well enough at 6-1, but USC dropped five of its last six as the competition stiffened to end up 7-6. The dream season for the AP's preseason No. 1 team crumbled thanks in part to the lack of depth from sanctions, and nearly every one of Barkley's key stats ended up worse than in 2011. The team with BCS aspirations ended up in the Sun Bowl. Instead of being a first round pick, he went in the fourth at great cost.
When I think of Aaron Murray in 2013, I can't help think of Barkley.
Everything has crumbled around Murray in 2013 thanks to a thin and suspect defense, something Barkley had too, and an injury plague rarely seen outside the SEC East of last year (Missouri) and this year (Florida). Most of Murray's stats are going to end up worse than in 2012. The preseason No. 5 team is now unranked with four losses, and Murray is never going to play in a BCS bowl. This season could have been a coronation of sorts, with Murray breaking career SEC records on the way to a rematch with Alabama in the SEC title game, but it was not meant to be. It's not hard to imagine UGA being in line for a 7-6 season like USC had last year if a few breaks went against the Bulldogs in two of their three close wins.
There are a few differences between the two, of course. Murray was not a first round projection last winter, so coming back to school was not all that controversial. He was not the preseason Heisman favorite as Barkley was. Georgia, while highly ranked, was not a real national championship favorite as USC was in the summer of 2012.
And crucially, Murray has not seen an appreciable fall in his play as Barkley did. The stats are down, but that's going to happen when a quarterback loses so many of his top running backs and receivers. Three of the team's four losses were close, and he did excellent work last Saturday to overcome a 20-point fourth quarter deficit and take the lead against Auburn.
Furthermore, Murray's NFL stock has probably, if anything, risen based on his 2013 play. He's not the subject of unanimous approval, but he hasn't melted down despite tough circumstances. He's listed at 6-1 and not getting any taller, but four of the top ten guys in NFL passer rating right now are 6-2 or shorter. He plays in a pro-style system, and this fall he's shown off his mobility at times. He's always had some wheels, but he's seldom used his quickness and running ability like he has this year. The NFL is changing to where being able to move is an asset, so his occasional game breaking runs are a plus for the next level. I don't think Murray's draft grade will significantly rise based on this season, but it's not falling three rounds either.
Still though, I can't get the comparison to Barkley out of my head. Both hold conference records for career passing yards and touchdown passes. Both came into their senior seasons with top-five rankings and high aspirations to cap off brilliant careers with big team successes. Both fell out of the polls in part due to things beyond their control, and neither will have his name found in any BCS bowl box score.
For me as a Florida fan, it makes me appreciate the storybook end to Chris Leak's career all the more. Sometimes guys go through a lot and get the big prize at the end. Most guys don't. All I can say is, enjoy the games Murray has left. His name is going to be all over the SEC record book for decades to come, and we only get three more chances to watch him play.