College insider: Georgia quarterback follows A&M QB, goes silent for Alabama

Posted Friday, Nov. 30, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Spotlight on: Alabama LB Nico Johnson

Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, a senior and multi-year starter, will play today for an SEC title for the final time in his college career. When he takes the field in Atlanta, where No. 2 Alabama (11-1) will meet No. 3 Georgia (11-1) in the SEC Championship Game, Johnson (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) will pause to remember his mother, Mamie, who died in 2010 because of complications from diabetes.

"Every time I go out on the field, it's for her," Johnson said earlier this week. "She's the one who kept me motivated. She's the one who wanted me to get my degree and play my best, no matter what the adversity or circumstance."

Johnson heads into today's game with 52 tackles and two forced fumbles this season. After missing out on last year's SEC title but rebounding to win the BCS national championship, Johnson would like to honor his mother by reaching both goals in his final season with the Crimson Tide.

"When I lost my mom, it was kind of difficult. I didn't know which way to turn. It just had me stuck," said Johnson, who credited strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran with helping him deal with the grief. "You never know when my last football game is going to be. So I try to give my best, week in and week out."

Storylines

Threepeat opportunity: Wisconsin (7-5) can clinch its third consecutive Big Ten title by upsetting No. 12 Nebraska (10-2) in tonight's conference championship game. The Badgers are in the game because Ohio State (12-0), the team with the best record in the Leaders Division, is ineligible to participate because of NCAA sanctions.

BCS overload: The loser of today's SEC championship game between No. 2 Alabama (11-1) and No. 3 Georgia (11-1) probably falls out of the BCS bowl mix because the league has so many candidates and only one at-large berth to offer. The SEC's other BCS contenders, released Tuesday, include No. 4 Florida (11-1) and No. 7 LSU (10-2).

Malzahn's title shot: Not every coach from Auburn's 2010 national title team struggled and lost his job this season. Gus Malzahn, the Tigers' offensive coordinator in 2010, has his first-year team at Arkansas State (8-3, 6-1) in a winner-take-all game today against Middle Tennessee (8-3, 6-1) for the Sun Belt conference title.

Today's big games

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Georgia (3 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11): Crimson Tide earns a chance to defend its BCS national title against No. 1 Notre Dame. But Georgia makes it difficult. Alabama 24, Georgia 20.

No. 12 Nebraska vs. Wisconsin (7 p.m., KDFW/Ch. 4): Huskers complete their run to the Rose Bowl, earn school's first Big Ten title as second-year members of the league. Nebraska 31, Wisconsin 23.

No. 18 Texas at No. 6 Kansas State (7 p.m., WFAA/Ch. 8): Wildcats rebound from stunning loss to Baylor, secure Big 12 title and berth in BCS bowl. Kansas State 34, Texas 24.

Last week: 3-0 Season: 25-11

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

Blame it on Johnny Football, who became a Heisman Trophy front-runner and the face of college football without ever talking to the media during Texas A&M's regular season.

Dismiss it as a one-week anomaly for a high-profile team leader seeking to prove he's a big-game quarterback, not just another passer with pretty statistics.

Call it an inspired decision or another crack in the ever-widening chasm between players and media members in today's 24-hour news cycle.

Whatever your take, know this: There is method behind this week's self-imposed silence from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray leading into today's SEC Championship Game between No. 3 Georgia (11-1) and No. 2 Alabama (11-1).

The game will determine which school meets No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7 in Miami.

And there will be copycats if Murray, who received approval from school officials to skip media sessions this week to focus on beating Alabama, leads the Bulldogs to their first winner-take-all matchup for a national title since the 1980 season.

Personally, I have no dog -- or Dawg -- in this fight and realize few topics are more tiresome to readers than discussions about limits on media access to players. It's fine with me that Murray, who normally fields questions after games and during news conferences, dipped below the radar screen this week to study more videotape of the Bama defense.

But taking that approach comes with repercussions. It sharpens the focus on today's performance by a junior who leads the nation in passing efficiency (177.15 rating) but has struggled in Georgia's two biggest games. Murray turned in an 11-of-31 passing performance, covering 109 yards, in a 35-7 loss to No. 10 South Carolina and a 12-of-24 effort for 150 yards in a 17-9 victory over No. 4 Florida.

In those games, Murray combined to throw four of his seven interceptions but only one of his 30 touchdown passes this season. He'll need to be more productive today to upset the Crimson Tide.

To accomplish that, Murray has relayed word through his coaches and his roommate, linebacker Christian Robinson, that his media boycott is aimed at limiting distractions rather than responding to perceived negative coverage about the team.

"This is the biggest game of our career," said Robinson, who shares a house with Murray. "I don't think he's trying to send a message. I just think he's dedicated to this week, and being prepared. He just wants to be completely ready and not have big distractions. Talking to the media takes a little time away."

Georgia coach Mark Richt said Murray loves to submerge himself in film study every week. But the third-year starter has taken things to a higher level in preparing for the Tide.

"This one, he just wants to focus on nothing but Alabama. He doesn't want to have any other distraction, so that's OK with me," Richt said.

As a journalist, this is where I should remind everyone that high-profile players who refuse to do media interviews are basically turning their backs on their fans. That by declaring it too much of a distraction to spend 10 minutes answering questions from reporters, players are telling fans -- in a roundabout way -- they are not worth 10 minutes of their time. And that, in college football, most of the top individual awards are based on media votes. So pick your battles wisely.

But I won't belabor those issues. Fans simply want their team to win. If the team succeeds, they are willing to embrace Murray's week of silence or A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's ban on letting freshmen do interviews (lifted this week so redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel could weigh in on his Heisman hopes).

Sumlin, rest assured, is far from alone among college coaches when it comes to muzzling freshmen. Murray, in turn, is not the first high-profile player to shun the media spotlight heading into a big game.

Regardless of pregame media policies, what a player or team does on the field should speak for itself on game day. That includes Murray, whose off-field decision this week will shine a brighter spotlight on his on-field efforts in Atlanta.

Alabama defensive back Robert Lester described Murray as "a great quarterback [who] knows exactly what to do with the ball when he is in pressure.... He manages the games well."

It will be interesting to see if Murray's extra attention to detail this week yields an upset. And what the reaction will be in Georgia if it does not.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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