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Bill King

Does Georgia really need to play five tailbacks against Clemson?

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When Georgia has the ball, do we really want to see Todd Gurley on  the sideline? (John Kelley / UGA)

When Georgia has the ball, do we really want to see Todd Gurley on the sideline? (John Kelley / UGA)

By all accounts, Georgia’s Todd Gurley, a Heisman Trophy candidate considered by many to be the best college running back in the country, is fully healthy, in the best shape of his career and rarin’ to go, carrying a full load against the Clemson Tigers.

Assuming his coaches let him stay on the field, that is.

While I understand the fascination on the part of both fans and coaches with highly touted freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, I’m a bit concerned about all this talk about playing all five tailbacks against Clemson.

Now, when offensive coordinator Mike Bobo first said last week that all five will play, he indicated that was because “all five are on special teams,” adding: “Offensive snaps, that’s still to be determined.”

I took that to mean Gurley will start, Keith Marshall will spell him and Brendan Douglas might get a shot with fresh legs late in the game like last year against South Carolina, while Chubb and Michel will get their feet wet playing special teams, not carrying the ball, unless the game turns into an unlikely blowout.

As Bobo noted of Gurley, “You feel like if you have a difference-maker as a skill guy … you want to try to get that guy [who] can make a difference in the game as many touches where he can make an impact.”

But then, at Tuesday’s press conference, Mark Richt muddied the waters a bit. After saying Chubb and Michel definitely will play in the game, he was asked how third-stringer Douglas fits into the crowded backfield and he responded:

“Brendan knows what to do. He’s a very physical runner and good pass protector. He’ll have a role throughout the season. I don’t know exactly what is going to happen this game as far as his playing time, or the two freshmen’s [playing time] for that matter. I am not really sure how much those guys will get, but Gurley is the starter, Keith is the number two guy, and the other guys are ready to play and my guess is that they’ll play. They’ll play special teams for sure and my guess is that they will probably get some scrimmage downs as well.”

Sorry, but unless Georgia has the game firmly in hand and Dabo Swinney has taken off the headset (considering most expect a tight game, how likely is that?), the Dogs need Gurley on the field as much as possible. And, if the coaches are worried about wearing him out, there’s Marshall, another proven commodity and scoring threat.

No matter how talented the incoming freshmen are, if they’re in the game at tailback, that means the best running back in the country is on the sideline. And, assuming Gurley is not hurting or worn out, like he was during the bowl game against Nebraska, that doesn’t make sense.

We saw in that Gator Bowl loss what can happen when the team’s best player is kept out of the game, as Georgia whiffed on several red-zone opportunities minus No. 3. Frankly, I thought at the time (and still do) that Bobo would have done better to keep even a tired Gurley in that game.

I think back to last year’s Tech game and the way the Dogs won it: by simply putting the ball in Gurley’s hands again and again.

I fully expect Chubb and Michel to have their days in the sun as Georgia’s star running backs. But this Saturday should be Todd Gurley’s day.

SERIES EXPERT PREVIEWS GEORGIA-CLEMSON

georgia-clemson flagNobody follows Georgia-Clemson with quite the intensity of UGA fan Kyle King, author of the book about the series, “Fighting Like Cats and Dogs.” So I asked Kyle (no relation) for his thoughts on Saturday’s matchup. Providing a bit of historical perspective, here’s what Kyle came up with …

With both the Bulldogs and the Tigers breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season, it’s a pretty safe bet that Clemson and Georgia won’t open the 2014 campaign with a repeat of last year’s shootout. Of course, the 2013 series meeting between the Classic City Canines and the Fort Hill Felines was the highest-scoring game in the 117-year history of the rivalry, so it isn’t exactly going out on a limb to predict that fans aren’t in for a rerun of last autumn’s 38-35 result.

Clemson and Georgia began the 2013 season by combining for 73 points, shattering the previous high water mark of 59 total points scored in a single meeting. The Tigers’ 38 points were the second-most ever scored by the Orange and Purple against the Red and Black, falling just short of the 39 points put up by John Heisman’s inaugural Clemson club against Georgia in 1900. For the first time in series history, the losing team scored more than 28 points.

Kyle King's "Cats and Dogs" covers the best years of the Georgia-Clemson series.

Kyle King’s “Cats and Dogs” covers the best years of the Georgia-Clemson series.

Although the offensive output was atypical, the final result really wasn’t. The 2013 game marked the 12th confrontation in the rivalry’s past 18 outings to be settled by a touchdown or less, and it was the third clash in the two teams’ past four encounters with one another to be resolved by 3 or fewer points. It has been the case fairly consistently since Charley Pell’s Tigers took down the defending SEC champion Bulldogs between the hedges in 1977 that, when these neighboring programs square off on the gridiron, a close contest is to be expected.

That probably is good news for a Georgia squad in transition from Aaron Murray and Todd Grantham, who both set records during their days in Athens, but with only one of them doing it in a good way. A deep and experienced Clemson defensive line will present the Red and Black offensive front with a stiff challenge, and a thin and untried Bulldog secondary will be tested by a fast-paced Tiger attack. A Georgia victory won’t require a Vince Dooley-style point total to show up on the scoreboard, but it will depend upon keeping the game close heading into the fourth quarter the way Erk Russell’s teams specialized in doing.

In that respect, two Georgia players are nearly certain to shoulder more than their fair share of the load on Labor Day weekend. Last year, a muffed Georgia field goal try provided the margin of defeat for the Bulldogs; Marshall Morgan, who went 47 for 47 on extra point tries and 22 for 24 on field goal attempts in 2013, is likely to play a key role in the latest clash in a series that often has been settled by long kicks late in games.

Likewise, as goes Todd Gurley, so go the Red and Black. A year ago, Gurley rushed for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries in a losing effort in Death Valley, but he is apt to be an even more critical cog in the Bulldog offense as Georgia looks to establish the run against a Clemson club that ranked third in the ACC in total defense in 2013. Unless the ground game gets going, Hutson Mason will be in for a long night in his first home start.

Speaking of home, if there is anywhere that Georgia enjoys a clear advantage over Clemson, it is in the venue. The Bulldogs are 19-2 all-time over the Tigers in Sanford Stadium, and the Red and Black have never lost a night game to the Orange and Purple Between the Hedges. Those are promising indicators, as a 1-0 start would bode well for the Bulldogs in 2014: Georgia has opened the season at home against Clemson three times in the last century, in 1946, 1982 and 2002.

All three seasons saw the Athenians beat the South Carolinians to kick off the campaign … and all three seasons saw Georgia finish the fall as the SEC champion.

Thanks, Kyle! Let’s hope the history you describe there at the end repeats itself.

THE GEORGIA WAY

If you haven’t yet checked out “The Georgia Way,” the latest UGA “spirit” video by talented filmmaker Frank Martin, give it a look. It does a beautiful job of summing up why so many of us love the University of Georgia!

Go Dogs!

JUNKYARD MAIL CALL

Got something you want to discuss concerning UGA athletics? Or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

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