By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — That running back duo in the Southeastern Conference championship game has been punishingly effective all season.
Pick a team — No. 3 Georgia or No. 2 Alabama — the description fits.
Bulldogs freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall roll into Saturday’s game with 1,858 combined yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Crimson Tide counters with Eddie Lacy, freshman T.J. Yeldon and their collective 1,848 yards and 24 TDs.
The stats hardly settle the debate of which tailback tandem is better.
“They’ve got two great running backs,” Tide cornerback Dee Milliner said. “We’ve got two, three great running backs here.”
Well, that’s no help.
There’s not an easy answer. Both backfield combinations have been terrific. If one player gets winded, the other goes in. One gets a little dinged up, no problem.
Fresh legs, and no rest for the weary defenses.
It has been Alabama’s formula since Nick Saban arrived. The two-tailback system has flourished with 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and 2011 finalist Trent Richardson, and both gained 700-plus yards as freshmen.
Yeldon has already surpassed the first-season production of either of those two first-round NFL draft picks with 847 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Saban said the system is especially effective if the backs present defenses with different styles, like Gurley and Marshall.
“Todd is a little bit like our guys in a way,” he said. “He’s big, physical, can run inside, can run outside. He’ll make you miss, but has power. Their second guy is a very, very good back in all those regards, but he’s a very fast guy. There’s a change of pace there that the players have to be aware of.”
Gurley has been the most prolific of the bunch. He is second in the SEC with 1,138 yards while he and Lacy’s 14 touchdowns are tied for tops among running backs. Lacy has 1,001 yards.
Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said Yeldon and Gurley compare favorably.
“They both run really hard,” Robinson said. “When I look at Todd I just see lower body. You know, people try to hit him high a lot of times, and he just keeps turning his legs and gets those extra yards and makes a lot of people miss.
“What I’ve seen of Yeldon, he has the speed to get around the edge. He turns up a lot on people that don’t think he’s as fast as he really is. You’ve got to hold the edge of the defense or else he’s gone. I think Todd has speed as well. He’s obviously looking a little bit faster. But I would say Todd’s a little bit bigger and more of a bruiser.”
Georgia’s backs have the clear advantage in one area: Nickname. No. 3 Gurley and No. 4 Marshall (720 yards, eight touchdowns)) have been dubbed “Gurshall” after Herschel Walker, who led the Bulldogs to the 1980 national title as a freshman. Their numbers just happen to smush into his 34, and Walker has praised the two freshmen.
“That’s great, to have one of the best players to ever come through college football to say great things about me,” Gurley said. “But I’ve got to keep working.”
He’s not into any comparisons with the former superstar, either. “We’re not trying to be like nobody else,” Gurley said. “But it’s a cool thing for the fans.”
Gurley is one touchdown away from matching Walker’s 15 as a freshman. He and Marshall have already blown by the 1,739 yards and 14 combined touchdowns by Arkansas freshmen and future first-rounders Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in 2005.
“Playing as a true freshman in the SEC, two guys, that’s enough said right there — at the University of the Georgia,” Alabama defensive end Damion Square said. “I know they’ve got some big-time guys there. For those guys to come in and play early and often, that makes them great. Those guys run hard. They’re going to make you pay when you make mistakes. Come in and tackling those guys, they’re going to make a 2-yard gain a 7-yard gain. You’ve got to be really fundamentally sound when you’re playing against those guys.”
Square passed on the question of which tailback tandem is the best.
“I play for the University of Alabama. So…” he said.
Maybe Saturday’s game will provide a more conclusive answer.