Why even in this booming passing era, Aaron Murray's SEC touchdown pass mark is nearly untouchable
On the surface, now is not the time to predict that college football passing records are safe.
Offenses run more plays, passing is prioritized more than ever and the increased attention on player safety favors the offense. We’re more likely to see a national championship end with each team in the 50s than single digits.
Shoot, we just saw Joe Burrow throw for a whopping 60 touchdown passes. Sixty! Do some quick math and hey, that’s basically halfway to Aaron Murray’s SEC record of 121 career passing touchdowns. Add in the fact that programs are finally allowing true freshmen to become starters and one would think now is the perfect time for an SEC signal-caller to take aim at the record books.
Surely that means Murray’s mark is in serious jeopardy, right?
Nope. I actually think Murray’s record is safe for a while.
A 4-year starting quarterback in college football is rare these days, especially in the SEC. Murray did that, as did Drew Lock, who set the SEC’s single-season touchdown pass record (which Burrow shattered in 2019). But even a prolific 4-year starter like Lock was 23 touchdown passes short of breaking Murray’s mark.
The only realistic way you break a mark like that is being a 4-year starter. Or if you’re a 3-year starter like Jake Fromm, you have to average 41 touchdown passes per year. Only 3 SEC quarterbacks ever had 41 touchdown passes in a year (Burrow, Lock and Tua Tagovailoa), and none of them did it twice.
Speaking of Tagovailoa, he would have actually been the rare case of someone who could have broken that record had he stayed for his senior season. Even more impressive, he wasn’t a starter as a true freshman (though he did rack up 11 touchdown passes because he appeared in 8 games). As prolific of a career as he had, he still would have needed 35 passing touchdowns in 2020 to reach that. Would a healthy Tagovailoa have reached that? Probably, but it’s still a mark that’s only been hit 12 times in SEC history.
And that’s the thing. Quarterbacks like Tagovailoa who put up those kind of numbers don’t stay in school. Even Lock was somewhat surprising when he announced his return for his senior year, and he wasn’t in striking distance of Murray.
Not even someone like Trevor Lawrence is set up to hit 121 (I know he’s in the ACC, but I’m using him as an example). Lawrence got the starting job early in his freshman season at Clemson, stayed healthy and played in 15 games in each of his first 2 seasons. As great as Lawrence is, how many touchdown passes does he have? He has 66, which is still 55 short of Murray’s mark. Assuming that 2020 is Lawrence’s last year in college football, I wouldn’t bet on him reaching 121, either.
You see, NFL teams didn’t hold Murray in the same regard as Lawrence or even Lock. Was Murray a great college quarterback? Absolutely. But as any Georgia fan could tell you, he was great despite some limitations to his game. He didn’t go through his progressions at NFL speed, his ability to escape pressure wasn’t next-level and he didn’t have the strongest arm.
Players with those limitations usually don’t put up numbers like Murray did. Jake Fromm had some limitations, though I’d argue he had fewer next-level limitations than Murray. Even if Fromm had stayed in Georgia — which many thought he should — he would have needed to match Lock’s historic 2017 season of 44 touchdowns to break Murray’s SEC record. And that’s for someone who played in 43 college games and never missed a start after he took over for Jacob Eason in the season opener of his true freshman season.
It’ll take the perfect set of circumstances to break Murray’s record.
If you had asked me 6 years ago what those circumstances would have been, I would have said that some undersized, system quarterback could possibly do it, or maybe someone with some obvious mechanical flaws. But now, the NFL is taking more concepts than ever from college offenses. Guys like Kyler Murray aren’t being passed on because of their size, and quarterbacks with accuracy issues like Lamar Jackson are still 1st-round picks. Why? Teams are finally willing to build an offense around them using college schemes.
I’m not saying that he would have starred in today’s NFL, but I can’t help but wonder how much differently we’d talk about Tim Tebow’s next-level potential in 2020 than we did in 2010. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Tebow started his last 3 years of college after his red-zone role as a true freshman … and still finished 34 career touchdown passes short of Murray.
What about someone like Baker Mayfield who actually finished his college career with 131 touchdown passes? Tell me this. If Mayfield, who essentially had 3.5 years as a starter including his freshman year at Texas Tech, had a sophomore season in the SEC with 36 touchdown passes and then a junior season with 40 touchdown passes, 11.1 yards per attempt and 71% accuracy, do you think that guy stays in school another year? Nope. Not in the SEC. Mayfield spent his senior year — and then some — trying to show the world that he wasn’t just taking advantage of Big 12 defenses.
Really smart of Baker Mayfield to go up against a Big 12 defense here at his pro day
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) March 14, 2018
In this era, if you can have 2 seasons like that in the SEC, you’re gone. Lock was the closest exception to that rule, but when he made the decision to return to school, he had yet to beat a ranked team yet and his sophomore season (with only 23 touchdown passes and 55% accuracy) was for a 4-8 squad.
Lock couldn’t do it, though I do think if Murray’s record comes down, it’ll be at the hands of a senior. More specifically, a senior that we’re at least somewhat surprised to see return.
Could someone follow Murray’s path in the 2020s? I suppose it’s possible, but it still seems unlikely. It would take someone who has next-level weaknesses after 3 years of starting in the SEC, and it would also take someone who acknowledges those weaknesses. Fromm didn’t care about his small hands — he reminded everyone that they won 3 SEC East titles — or his arm strength issues. And again, Fromm still would have needed a single-season Georgia record to reach Murray’s career mark.
Am I saying that Murray’s record is untouchable? Of course not. All bets are off after what we saw Burrow do in 2019. Maybe the right situation will come along. It’s definitely not happening in 2020 (Kellen Mond has the most passing touchdowns of any active SEC quarterback with 52), and I’m not betting on Bo Nix to average 35 touchdown passes for another 3 seasons as a starter.
Murray’s statistical feat is going to age well, even if he wasn’t the guy who ended the 1980 jokes or if he didn’t become a successful NFL quarterback. He was indeed a great college quarterback. Maybe it’ll take another decade of him owning that record for that to become a unanimous opinion. I’m not sure.
What am I more sure of? It’s going to take the perfect set of circumstances for “122” to become a realistic goal for an SEC quarterback.