Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray arrived at Georgia at the same time with the same goal — to be their team’s starting quarterback and guide it in games with championship implications.
After taking divergent paths, four years later they both find themselves in that position as No. 6 LSU and No. 9 Georgia meet in a Southeastern Conference showdown Saturday afternoon in Sanford Stadium.
Murray is finishing one of the most successful careers in SEC history in his fourth season as the Bulldogs starter, and Mettenberger is finally fulfilling his eye-catching potential in his second season as the Tigers starter.
This game isn’t just about the quarterbacks, but it does feature the two most efficient ones in the conference as Murray has been slightly better than Mettenberger.
“We felt like we could win with both of those guys,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said, “and as it turns out they’re both getting their opportunity to lead teams in this league and playing a game like this at the same time.”
LSU (4-0 , 1-0 SEC) is playing in an opponent’s home stadium for the first time this season in the first of three games against teams currently ranked in The Associated Press top 10. The Tigers visit No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 9 and host No. 10 Texas A&M two weeks later.
Georgia (2-1, 1-0) was No. 5 in the preseason poll but suffered a nonconference loss to Clemson in its season opener.
So this game has significant implications for both teams in the SEC race and polls, on top of the quarterbacks subplot.
“This is probably the biggest game (so far) for everybody, but it’s totally on another level for Zach Mettenberger,” Tigers defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said. “He’s proven he can be an elite quarterback in the country, and going back home where he started off, I think it’s going to be very emotional for him.
“But Zach’s a nonchalant guy. He’s like, “I play football, I’m going to throw the football and we’re going to win this game.’ ”
Four years ago, Mettenberger’s and Murray’s only competition against one another figured to be as teammates. Despite going their separate ways, Mettenberger said they’re friends.
“He’s a respected competitor,” Mettenberger said. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to go against him. He’s had an outstanding career at Georgia, but that really doesn’t matter for us in this game.”
Both quarterbacks have tried to turn the spotlight on the game.
“As soon as everyone hits the field Saturday, all the talk is going to be gone,” Murray said.
Murray is on pace to become the SEC’s career leader in touchdown passes (he needs 13 to pass Danny Wuerffel), passing yards (he needs 398 to pass David Greene) and total offense (he needs 880 to pass Tim Tebow).
“That says a lot about him,” LSU safety Craig Loston said. “When a guy has numbers like that, you definitely can’t overlook him. This guy is a four-year starter who has great history behind him, and he’s trying to make history, too.”
Mettenberger, who was kicked off the team by Richt after an arrest in 2010, went to Butler (Kan.) Community College before landing at LSU. After backing up Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson two years ago, he made his delayed debut as a starter last season and was the inconsistent leader of an inconsistent offense.
But with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Mettenberger has thrived through four games. He has 10 touchdown passes and just one interception.
“I really am happy for Zach to get that type of coaching,” Richt said, “and it’s been really good for him.”
LSU coach Les Miles said early in the week that this “will be a great experience for (Mettenberger),” but later in the week the coach seemed to be tiring of that storyline.
“The going back to Georgia thing is not an issue with this team,” Miles said. “He’s going back to Georgia with about 80 guys that are going to fight like hell for victory. His responsibility is to play quarterback and fit in. He’ll wear purple and gold, and he’ll be in one of the helmets that go out to the huddle and that’s how he needs to operate it.
“The storyline is only significant to the people asking the questions who somehow feel the game needs to be more interesting than it already is. I think it’s a very good matchup.”