Georgia announced Thursday that star running back Todd Gurley has been suspended indefinitely amid an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules. According to SI.com's Andy Staples, the investigation concerns whether Gurley accepted money in exchange for signing memorabilia.
The announcement of the suspension comes just two days before the No. 13 Bulldogs (4-1) travel to play No. 23 Missouri (4-1) in Columbia, Mo., a matchup that should play a key role in shaping the SEC East standings.
"I'm obviously very disappointed," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said in a statement issued by the school. "The important thing for our team is to turn all our attention toward preparation for Missouri."
Gurley had emerged as one of the leading Heisman Trophy candidates through five games this season. The junior from Tarboro, N.C., carried 94 times from 773 yards and eight scores, and he leads the SEC with an average of 194.6 all-purpose yards per game. He has run for 150-plus yards three times in 2014, including his 163-yard, two-touchdown effort in last Saturday’s 44-17 win over Vanderbilt.
The absence of Gurley comes at a rough time for the Bulldogs, but few teams in the country rival the Dawgs' depth at running back. Georgia has talented runners in freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and junior Keith Marshall. This weekend, however, Michel (shoulder) and Marshall (ankle, knee) will be sidelined with injuries. Chubb, a former five-star recruit out of Cedartown, Ga., will be the primary option at running back against a Missouri defense allowing 144.6 rushing yards per game. After earning four carries in each of his first three games this year, Chubb carried the ball a combined 19 times in Georgia's last two wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Now he'll face Tigers defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who are among the country’s premier defenders.
If Chubb can’t shoulder the load, the offense could struggle. The Bulldogs rank 11th in the SEC in passing offense (170.2 yards per game). Senior Hutson Mason has been inconsistent in his attempt to replace longtime starter Aaron Murray, throwing for 687 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. But Georgia has leaned heavily on the run. Only Arkansas (107 attempts) has thrown the ball fewer times than Georgia (117) in the SEC this season.
With a loss at Missouri the Bulldogs would spot the Tigers a two-game lead in the SEC East race, in addition to the tiebreaking head-to-head result. That’s quite a hole to dig out of halfway through the season. That climb would only become steeper if Gurley misses additional playing time. Details of the investigation are still emerging, but the star back’s absence is clearly significant.
Regarding the Heisman race, Gurley was at a disadvantage competing in such a quarterback-heavy era. Twelve of the last 13 winners have been passers. But he has been the main offensive weapon for a team many expected to contend for a berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. With his suspension, hopes for a Georgia championship and a Gurley Heisman triumph seem in jeopardy.