ATHENS, Ga. — There was a little awkwardness in Bulldog Nation this weekend when beloved former son Aaron Murray went on the record, picking the wrong Bulldogs between the hedges.
“I’m going to be on the field and cheering the Dawgs on and I hope I’m wrong,” Murray said on the Punt & Pass Podcast he co-hosts with fellow ex-Bulldog Drew Butler. “But I got Mississippi State winning this game. I hope I’m wrong and I hope some Georgia fans are booing me come Saturday. It would make me the happiest man in the world.”
The response from the Murray clone wearing No. 11 for Georgia, Jake Fromm: Hold my non-alcoholic beer.
Georgia and its young quarterback wasted no time in restoring the swagger with what turned into a decisive 31-3 triumph in the Southeastern Conference opener. After Georgia’s defense stuffed Mississippi State’s first possession, Fromm took a flea-flicker toss from Nick Chubb and hit a wide-open Terry Godwin streaking up the middle of the field for an instant-strike 59-yard touchdown. The Sanford Stadium crowd erupted louder than anything since Todd Gurley heralded his return from suspension in 2014 with an opening kickoff return touchdown against Auburn that was undimmed by a penalty nullifying it.
“That first play came out and made a play and then the offense did what they did, it was just on from there,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “We just had to keep rolling and momentum is a helluva thing.”
By the time Murray was introduced midway through the first quarter along with other former Bulldogs, Georgia was ahead 14-0 and the visiting Bulldogs that led the conference in scoring were spinning their offensive wheels en route to a touchdown-free night. Murray received a slight hint of dissent from the home crowd that was too delirious to hold a grudge against the leading passer in SEC history.
Truth be told, Murray wasn’t the only Georgia follower concerned about this SEC opener. Both 3-0 Bulldogs entered the game bearing promise and questions. Each boasted credible wins – Notre Dame and LSU, respectively – yet neither had a sample size large enough to define a true direction.
This was a chance for one of these teams to make a statement and Georgia seized the moment. The defense spent all week hearing about how unstoppable Mississippi State’s offense was under jilted Georgia native Nick Fitzgerald.
Georgia’s defense, however, has basically faced essentially the same dual-threat QB every week this season and was prepared to shut it down as they had Appalachian State, Notre Dame and Samford.
The bigger question was whether Georgia’s offense was ready to take the next step. And was Fromm ready to take the reins as something more than a game manager?
The opening strike set the tone the SEC’s weakest passing offense thus far was set to come out of its shell. Fromm completed his first eight passes on the night for more yards (160) than the Bulldogs averaged all season (154.3). If not for a dubious fumble turnover after D’Andre Swift was dragged down by his helmet, Georgia might have waltzed to a three-score lead early in the second quarter and made a short night of the drama.
While the defense minimized any potential damage by dominating Mississippi State, the offense developed a personality and flavor beyond the vanilla it’s been serving up since Jim Chaney came on board with Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs finished with a near perfect balance of 203 yards rushing and 201 passing.
“I felt like tonight offense, defense, passing game, rushing game it was clicking on all cylinders,” Godwin said.
It was a welcome sight for Georgia fans as it gets ready to hit the road for a two-game swing in the Volunteer state against chastened Tennessee and Vanderbilt. It’s the start of a five-game run against SEC East opponents that have not distinguished themselves thus far.
“I know every one of y’all wants to write how great this was, but we still had dropped balls, we still got missed blocks, we still had missed tackles,” Smart said. “We’ve still got a lot of room for improvement and a team that’s got to go on the road just like Mississippi State did after a big win.”
While the competition stumbles through September, the Bulldogs have rebuilt the brand behind a suffocating defense and an emerging offense under the direction of a new folk hero.
The week started with news Jacob Eason has resumed practicing as he recovers from his sprained knee, but his replacement has settled into a rhythm and is steadily taking command of the program.
“There’s more to come,” Godwin said of Fromm. “This was just the preview. That kid, the sky’s the limit for him.”
The play of the night came in the third quarter when Fromm stood in the face of a barreling Mississippi State rusher, and lobbed a perfect deep strike to tight end Issac Nauta for a 41-yard touchdown and commanding 28-3 lead as the expected brawl devolved into a blowout Saturday night.
Murray might recognize a familiar theme in the developing quarterback story at his alma mater. He wasn’t blessed with the same physical gifts as his nearest challenger, Zach Mettenberger, but Murray possessed the intangibles that blossomed into a 13,000-yard passing career for the Bulldogs.
That same comparison is growing between Fromm and Eason. At his current trajectory, Fromm might not hand back the reins and earn his own championship shot at Alabama after out-classing a quality SEC West opponent in his conference debut.
Georgia believes more than ever in its championship destiny.
“This wasn’t the beginning, the fall was the beginning,” Godwin said. “Because we knew in the fall this was gonna be a special season. Tonight we put on a show and it finally showed out.”
Should it come to a title shot in the end, chances are Murray won’t make the same mistake and pick against the Bulldogs, no matter how much he might believe it.