#3 Auburn (7-2, 4-2) at #20 Georgia (7-2, 5-2)
ATHENS — Georgia's Mark Richt is doing his best to downplay the return of Todd Gurley.
Good luck with that.
Richt cut back on the number of players allowed to address the media this week, limiting it to four seniors who spoke Tuesday after the coach's regular news conference.
Clearly, Richt was looking for guys who wouldn't say anything too contentious.
"I just felt like probably the most asked question was going to be about what do you think about Todd being back, what do you think about all that stuff," the coach said. "I wanted to just get through this week."
Of course, the end of Gurley's four-game suspension is the big storyline as the 16th-ranked Bulldogs (7-2, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) host ninth-ranked Auburn (7-2, 4-2) Saturday night.
A month ago, the running back was a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy when the school got word he had accepted money for autographs. Gurley acknowledged taking more than $3,000 over a two-year period, and the NCAA ordered him to sit out SEC games against Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Kentucky.
Richt signaled a change in the normal media policy when the school declined to make any players available after Monday's practice, Gurley's first since the end of his suspension. Assistant coaches, who normally speak after Tuesday practices, are off limits this week, as well.
Gurley was not available for comment, either. Richt said that's his normal policy for any player coming off a suspension, though he's made exceptions in the past.
The coach said he wanted "to get some mature guys in there that would be able to handle those types of questions. I didn't want to know everybody's opinion on what they think about Todd being back. I want everybody to be excited about Todd being back, which I am and the rest of the team is and the staff is. But let's focus on the game. Let's focus on Georgia."
The Bulldogs won three times while Gurley was suspended, leaving them solidly for a spot in the SEC championship game. They trail Missouri in the Eastern Division but like their chances if they beat Auburn, which is coming off a devastating home loss against Texas A&M that severely damaged its own title hopes.
Georgia holds a tiebreaker edge, having beaten the Tigers 34-0 in the first game of Gurley's suspension. Missouri (7-2, 4-1) has three conference games remaining, including road trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Freshman Nick Chubb did a stellar job filling in while Gurley was out, running for 671 yards and five touchdowns to become the team's leading rusher on the season with 895 yards.
Chubb will continue to get a share of the carries, only in a backup role.
There was never a doubt that Gurley would reclaim the starting job as soon as he served his four-game suspension.
"He's been practicing. He's been getting extra work in the weight room, getting extra work running on his own," Richt said. "It's a little bit different than playing games and being in football shape, but I think he'll be in good condition. If I knew he had to carry it 38 times and catch five balls, how would he do that? I don't know for sure. But hopefully he won't have to have that many touches."
Actually, the importance of Gurley's return goes beyond the stat sheet.
From all indications, he's already given the Bulldogs an emotional boost heading into what could be the most important game of the season.
"There's a lot more chatter at practice now that Todd is back. He's always chirping," quarterback Hutson Mason said, breaking into a sly grin. "He just brings that feeling to practice and to the games that you've got your best player. It's exciting when you know we've got a great weapon back."
Auburn will certainly have its hands full trying to contain both Gurley and Chubb, especially with Georgia able to spread out the carries and try to keep both of them fairly fresh heading to the fourth quarter.
"It's going to be tough now. They've got two backs that can start for anybody," said Ellis Johnson, the Tigers' defensive coordinator. "Going back and looking at their early season films, Gurley's like a time bomb. When is he going to get that 95-yard kickoff? When is he going to hit that 40-yard run? When is he going to catch that 35-yard screen pass? You got to be exactly right on him every time because he's either going to break the physical tackle or he's going to out-run the space tackle. He's a specimen. I'm sure they'll be glad to get him back."
No matter how much Richt tries to downplay it.
"Todd's coming back," Mason said. "We know that's what everyone is making it out to be."