ATLANTA – Atlanta is a college football town pretending this week to care about the NFL. Luckily for the league, there are reasons for college football fans in Georgia to adopt this Super Bowl: Both teams feature lead Dawgs.
The Georgia Bulldogs matter more to Georgians than does any other team. If you needed proof, you should have visited Atlanta on Dec. 2 and 3 in 2017.
On Dec. 2, a Saturday, Georgia played Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. That matchup turned downtown Atlanta, not usually a hopping scene, into a scene from Caligula. Every car bore a college flag from one of the schools, with Georgia easily outnumbering Auburn. Everyone wore school colors. Every bar and restaurant was packed.
The next day, a good Vikings team faced a good Falcons team, and the city felt like an outdoor church service.
The Georgia Bulldogs rule Georgia sports, and Georgia running backs could rule the Super Bowl.
Todd Gurley starred at Georgia from 2012 to ’14. The Rams made him the 10th pick in the 2015 draft.
For most of this season he was considered a possible Most Valuable Player, before a knee injury slowed him. He is the quintessential modern back, capable of leading a power rushing attack or beating a linebacker downfield on a pass pattern.
Sony Michel played at Georgia from 2014 to ’17. The Patriots made him the 31st pick in the 2018 draft. He was the first back chosen by the Patriots in the first round since they chose Minnesota’s Laurence Maroney in 2006. As a rookie, Michel played in only 13 games and started only eight, yet he rushed for 931 yards. He leads all postseason rushers with 242 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
“I remember when he first came in; he couldn’t run and catch,” Gurley said. “I had to teach him how to do all that stuff.”
Georgia is becoming known as Running Back U, thanks to such running backs as former Viking Herschel Walker, Gurley, Michel, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and the Jets’ Isaiah Crowell. Georgia produced three of the NFL’s top 17 rushers this season, and two of them — Michel and Chubb — had to earn carries as rookies.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised Georgia coach Kirby Smart for developing NFL-caliber runners. “I think his program is an excellent program to prepare players for the NFL. The way they practice, the way they prepare and hold each other accountable and so forth is similar with what we try to do.”
Because of Gurley’s knee and Michel’s coach, their roles in the Super Bowl are mysteries.
Gurley managed just 28 and 48 yards rushing in his last two regular-season games. In the divisional playoffs against the Cowboys, he rushed 16 times for 115 yards, but C.J. Anderson, a late-season pickup, rushed 23 times for 123 yards. In the NFC title game, Gurley rushed four times for 10 yards and dropped two passes, while Anderson carried 16 times for 44 yards.
Rams coach Sean McVay blamed himself for Gurley’s workload. Gurley says he’s healthy. One of them isn’t telling the truth. Or both.
“He’s going to be a big part of the game plan,” McVay said of Gurley. “I think a large part of specifically when you talk about last week’s game was the play selection. I’ve got to do a much better job for Todd to get him opportunities to get going.”
Michel has been dominant but plays for a team willing to ignore past performance when building a game plan. Michel shares snaps with James White, one of the league’s best receiving backs, and Rex Burkhead, the former Nebraska back who scored two late touchdowns in the AFC title game.
Because Belichick likes to frustrate fast-paced opposing offenses by controlling the ball, and a strong performance from Gurley would seem to be needed to beat the Patriots, Sunday could prove to be a duel of Dawgs.
Two alumni of Running Back U will attend graduate school on Sunday.
No running back has won Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl in 21 years.
The winner? Denver’s Terrell Davis.
His school? Georgia. Of course.