Todd Gurley’s and Sony Michel’s stories are closely linked, from UGA to the Super Bowl

Todd Gurley’s and Sony Michel’s stories are closely linked, from UGA to the Super Bowl

When the Patriots and Rams meet on Super Bowl Sunday, they’ll both lean on running backs who starred for Georgia earlier this decade. Sony Michel and Todd Gurley only overlapped in Athens for one year, 2014, but their stories are closely connected. And now they’ve led to the same place: Atlanta, with a Lombardi Trophy on the line in the state they used to play in.

Heading into 2014, the junior Gurley was UGA’s star back and undisputed starter.

Two years earlier, as a freshman, he ran for 1,385 yards (6.2 per carry) and 17 TDs. As a sophomore, he missed four games and had smaller overall numbers, but he still posted a 6-yard average and had 16 total touchdowns in 10 games. Gurley was supposed to have a huge junior season and was tied for the fifth-best odds on preseason Heisman boards.

Michel was one of Gurley’s backups. In the first half of the season, the freshman played sparingly behind the junior star. Georgia started the year 4-1, with the loss coming to South Carolina in Week 2. Gurley ran for 773 yards and eight TDs in the first five games.

Then Gurley got suspended for four games amid a bunch of NCAA bullshit, with the organization saying he took money for autographs.

On Sept. 30, 2014, a Florida fan emailed my colleague, SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey, trying to share a story (purportedly with video) about Gurley taking money for autographs. The tipster showed Godfrey a photo of a black man with dreadlocks signing a red item. “There is no way of telling whether it is Gurley or not,” Godfrey wrote.

That Gator fan was Bryan Allen, who co-owned and operated a shop based in Rome, Georgia, by the name of Players. It closed in 2013, but when it was in business, it sold items signed by Gurley, among other things.

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Why’d the guy tattle on Gurley? He said it was because the running back had “screwed him” by signing autographs for other vendors, cutting into the value of autographs he’d signed for the tipster to sell. He told Georgia he’d paid Gurley all of $400.

On Oct. 9, Georgia suspended Gurley for two games, citing “an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules.” Later that month, the NCAA said Gurley had taken more than $3,000 for autographs over the prior two years.

The suspension, like the rule that prompted it, was dumb. The #FreeGurley hashtag trended on Twitter. Even some Florida fans, like Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army, saw the situation as a broader representation of what’s wrong with the NCAA’s idea of amateurism:

The NCAA is a cartel to its bone, controlling the supply of “amateur” sports and the availability of “amateur” labor and using its control of this valuable product to get away with all sorts of chicanery. It is a kangaroo court when it needs to be, a scolding headmaster with dismaying frequency, and the sort of garden-variety evil an organization comprised primarily of Bill Lumbergh clones would be on a daily basis.

The rational response to “Why shouldn’t college athletes get paid?” has always been and will always be “They should.” And it is true that, in a sense, they are paid. But that compensation has never been fair, and the NCAA’s entire structure is set up to prevent that fairness, because the unfairness is what keeps the NCAA standing, year after year.

While Gurley was out, Nick Chubb was his primary replacement, but Michel got his most run yet at the end of Gurley’s suspension.

The future Browns second-round pick, who was a freshman like Michel, put up huge numbers during Gurley’s four-game suspension. He ran for 671 yards and scored six TDs.

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Michel’s only touches during the Gurley suspension were 16 carries for 84 yards and a touchdown in a win over Kentucky. That was a week before Gurley’s return.

When Gurley’s suspension started, Chubb had carried 23 times, appearing in four of five games. He wound up carrying 64 times for 410 yards and five rushing TDs in total, with 41 of those carries coming between the November 8 Kentucky game and the bowl.

Without Gurley, the Dawgs went 3-1, with the loss coming to Florida.

Gurley finished serving his suspension in time for a big, ranked meeting with Auburn on November 15. But he tore his ACL in his first game back.

Georgia was ranked 16th, Auburn ranked ninth. The Dawgs dominated, 34-7. But it came at a cost. Gurley carried 29 times for 138 yards and a touchdown, but he got hurt, and school announced the next day he’d torn the ACL in his left knee.

If it doesn’t make sense how Georgia could have had Gurley, Chubb, and Michel and finished second in the East to Missouri, the answer is that UGA rarely had all three of them at the same time. Chubb and Michel were just starting, and Gurley was just leaving. The Dawgs also had the ultra-fast but oft-injured Keith Marshall in that backfield.

From there, Gurley rehabbed and declared for the draft. That meant Chubb and Michel took over as Georgia’s top running backs, positions they’d keep for three more years.

Michel rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown in Georgia’s remaining games against Georgia Tech, Charleston Southern, and Louisville in the Belk Bowl. Chubb became the primary back for the rest of 2014, and the two returned as sophomores in 2015.

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The Rams made Gurley the No. 10 overall pick and later gave him a market-resetting, $60 million contract extension. Nobody suspended him over it.

Chubb and Michel were great together. They ran for a combined 8,382 yards over their four-year careers, scoring 87 touchdowns and helping transform Georgia from an SEC East disappointment into a national title contender. They were the most statistically prolific RB tandem in college football history, though not quite the highest-drafted — Michel 31st overall to the Patriots, Chubb 35th to the Browns in 2018.

And now two of those three UGA running backs are together again, on the biggest stage in the sport.

A find by a college football Redditor, Ugadead1991: If Michel officially gets the Patriots’ starting nod, it’ll be the second time a college has had two running backs start the Super Bowl. Cal’s Marshawn Lynch and Shane Vereen did it for the Seahawks and Patriots in Super Bowl 49. But unlike Gurley and Michel, those two never shared a backfield in the same college year.