The SEC title race is one of the most competitive races in sports today and it has often served as an unofficial NCAA semifinal for several years now. It is not easy to get a spot in the title game at the Georgia Dome and the spot often hinges one or two crucial moments during the regular season. The all important extra factors, or x-factors, often make the difference between two teams that usually have a stout defense and solid offense just to make the game. The University of Florida clearly has the defensive skills needed but it will be the quarterback play of backup Tyler Murphy that could shape the entire eastern race.
Most teams would cringe when their talented starter is lost to injury so early in the season but Florida was in somewhat of a different situation. While Jeff Driskel is one of the more physically gifted quarterbacks you will see in college football, his decision making came under fire after major mistakes (often due to to hesitation) in crucial moments. Despite this, his loss due to a broken fibula was no doubt expected to be a devastating loss for a team with so much inexperience at the position. So when Tyler Murphy stepped up big for the Gators, it was a much needed boost to a team whose season was in peril after playing in a BCS game only a year ago.
So who is Tyler Murphy? Murphy is a 6’2″ 210-pound redshirt Junior out of Wethersfield, Connecticut who was a two-star recruit originally recruited by former Gator offensive coordinator Steve Addazio. Despite the coaching changes, and subsequent restructuring of the offense, Murphy elected to stick it out even with incoming heralded recruits Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel. Murphy’s decision to work his way up rather than transfer, like many quarterbacks do, is commendable but his drive to “make a QB controversy” against an entrenched starter separated him from his role as a “valuable scout team” member.
Murphy has impressed since becoming a starter for the Gators by making the right reads and not turning over the ball. Head coach Will Muschamp raised a few eyebrows by calling him a “game manager” but the reality is that there is nothing wrong with being an effective game manager as sometimes that is all you need. Teams have won at every level of football with so-called game managers at quarterback. In fact, a game manager may actually end being a better fit for what Florida wants to be as a team.
With Murphy’s solid play since taking over from Driskel, some have wondered if Murphy is the better fit for the Gators. The biggest difference between Murphy and Driskel comes in their decision making and on-field awareness. While Driskel would often times make the correct read, he would hesitate and often tip off safeties and cornerbacks who would then be able to break up and intercept passes. That hesitation also led to coverage sacks and fumbles for Driskel behind an already struggling offensive line. Murphy addresses this by making quick though not always correct, as evidenced by his missed screen read last week, reads and then fully committing on his throws.
While Florida wants to be a throwback football team with their hard running and hard hitting defense, passing is in some ways more important for this team. Unless you are a straight triple option team, you need a solid intermediate and play action passing game to help keep defenses honest. Murphy’s quick thinking helps the Gators by forcing defenses to respect his arm and play fakes by not allowing defenses to react like they do with Driskel. It also helps that the Gators’ receiving corps, particuarly Solomon Patton, seems to be responding to Murphy’s style of play and leadership. With Driskel at the helm, the Gators seemed to be heading for a third place finish in the SEC East. If Murphy’s level of play continues to improve, or just hold up, over this brutal stretch of games, they could find themselves back in Atlanta for the first time since Urban Meyer left.
The SEC is seeing a different level of quarterback play this year with Aaron Murray, Johnny Manziel, Zach Mettenburger, and A.J. McCarron all playing like Davey O’Brian award candidates. With Florida’s defensive prowess and stable of reliable runners, Murphy does not have to play at their level, or end up a Top 5 NFL Draft prospect, all year for the Gators to contend for the SEC title. He merely has to come through enough on third downs and be a threat in play action to allow their deadly defense and grinding running attack to help control the game.
We will find out quickly if Murphy can perform to that standard against the Gators’ permanent SEC West rival in LSU this Saturday. If Murphy does not get rattled while playing in one of the most terrifying venues in all of sports, the Gators could be in for another strong season despite their frustrating loss to Miami earlier this year. The Gators have a solid team and great defense, but Murphy could be the factor that could vault the Gators in the standings. UGA is still the clear front runner in the SEC East, but Murphy and the Gators have the ability to make it interesting.