ATHENS, Ga. – Aaron Murray manages to stay upbeat, even during the tough times.
If the Georgia quarterback is feeling any pain, he hides it well.
"Fake it until you make it, I guess," Murray quipped this week, managing to roust one of those familiar smiles.
While in the midst of what is shaping up to be his best season statistically, the fourth-year junior has endured plenty of setbacks — all of them, it seems, piling on about the same time.
First, there was a four-touchdown loss at South Carolina, which again denied Murray a signature win. Then, he returned to Athens to find the rented home he shares with teammates had been egged and covered in toilet paper, apparently by irate fans. Finally, the worst news of all: His father had been diagnosed with cancer.
"Probably the worst 12 hours of my life," Murray tweeted at the time.
He hustled off to Tampa, Fla., to be with his dad, who had surgery and is doing well. Then, after getting stopped for speeding on his way back to Georgia (of course!), it was time for Murray to put all his personal issues aside.
"As the quarterback, I've got to make sure I have a high energy level no matter what is going on in my life," he said. "I've got to make sure I go out there every day in practice and run around, yelling and screaming and having fun. I've got to make sure that my guys see I'm ready to go."
On Saturday, Murray will get another chance to fill the biggest hole in an otherwise impressive resume when the No. 12 Bulldogs (6-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) face third-ranked Florida (7-0, 6-0) in Jacksonville.
Despite his gaudy numbers — which include more than 8,000 yards passing and a school-record 75 touchdowns — Murray has yet to lead Georgia to a victory over a top-10 opponent.
He shrugs off any attempt to make that shortcoming into something personal.
"I don't even think about it really," said Murray, who has completed more than 65 percent of his passes this season for 1,914 yards, with 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions. "It's a team game. I'm not playing Florida or any top team all by myself."
But offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, a former Georgia quarterback himself, knows how much this game means to Murray.
The stakes couldn't be any higher. Florida can clinch the SEC East with a victory, but the Bulldogs would be in prime position for a second straight trip to the league championship game if they can knock off the Gators.
"There's no doubt that he wants to win a game like this, against a team that's going to help us reach our goal and put us one step closer to hopefully going back to Atlanta," Bobo said.
Certainly, Murray wants to avoid a repeat of the South Carolina debacle. In perhaps the worst game of his college career, Murray completed just 11 of 31 passes for 109 yards as the Gamecocks romped to a 35-7 victory.
If Murray can put together a more typical performance against Florida, it might give the Bulldogs a solid chance of pulling off the upset. The Gators have been beating teams with run-dominated offense, stifling defense and remarkable play out of the special teams. Jeff Driskel has done a solid job, but quarterback is the one position where Georgia appears to have a significant advantage.
"He's very quick with his decision making," Florida cornerback Jaylen Watkins said. "You can tell he understands coverages. He can pick you apart — to the field, to the boundary — it doesn't really matter. He can do everything. This week we can't say, 'This quarterback can't make this throw, can't make that throw.' He can make everything."
Murray has faced the Gators twice before. As a redshirt freshman, he was picked off in overtime, leading to Florida's winning field goal. Last season, the Bulldogs rallied from a two-touchdown deficit, scoring twice on fourth-down plays to pull out a 24-20 triumph.
Looking back on what went wrong that dreadful night in South Carolina, Murray believes he set the bar so high, there was no way he could reach it. He was looking for perfection. All he got was misery.
This time, he just needs to trust himself.
"We don't have to be perfect," Bobo said. "We're going to punt. We might get sacked a couple of times. We might throw a bad ball. They might even pick the ball off. But we've just got to keep playing."
Beyond the impressive stats, Murray has tried to become a more outspoken leader. It's really not in his nature to get in a teammate's face. He prefers to lead by example, to inspire others through hard work on the practice field, through extra hours in the film room.
That's not always enough.
"There's instances where I needed to be more demanding and vocal," Murray said. "That's me maturing this season and understanding my role as one of the leaders of the team. I've got to make sure guys are holding each other accountable and doing the right things at all times."
Murray bounced back with a vengeance last week at Kentucky, throwing for a career-high 427 yards and four touchdowns, a gutty performance that allowed the Bulldogs escape with a closer-than-expected 29-24 victory and earned the SEC offensive player of the week award.
Impressive, to be sure, but not the sort of win that will solidify Murray's standing as one of the great quarterbacks in Georgia history.
Beating Florida would do just that.
"I believe in Aaron Murray. I think our whole team believes in Aaron Murray," Bobo said. "Aaron Murray has got to believe in himself this week."
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