ATHENS, Ga. -- As he does each Sunday, Mark Richt sat down and rewatched his Georgia team's game from the previous day -- this time a 41-30 win against then-No. 6 South Carolina.
Asked Sunday evening what he took away from that second viewing, Richt's first comments concerned his starting tailback, Todd Gurley.
“Just watching Gurley run was fun,” Richt said. “He's just such a powerful back. He's got such great balance, speed.”
Fans -- and Heisman Trophy voters -- have had the opportunity to make similar observations over the last two weeks as Richt's Bulldogs played two top-10 opponents. And all Gurley has done is dominate in both games, despite missing a portion of the opener at Clemson with a quad injury and despite facing one of the nation's better run defenses from last season in South Carolina.
Gurley on Monday received two rounds of treatment on the thigh injury that kept him from practicing much last week, but it didn't prevent him from dominating on the ground Saturday and fulfilling one of his few stated offseason goals of contributing more in the passing game. He hauled in his first career touchdown catch in the third quarter of the Bulldogs' win.
“I really didn't sit down this offseason and say, 'I'm trying to do this, I'm trying to do that,' ” Gurley said. “One of my main things was just to get more plays in the passing game and just work on playing without the ball. That was about all.”
After his 30-carry, 132-yard effort, which included one rushing and one receiving touchdown, Gurley is seventh nationally with 286 rushing yards and tied for fourth with four touchdowns.
“He probably is at the top of the group of running backs who are going for the Heisman right now,” said Chris Huston, whose Heisman Pundit website tracks the race closely throughout the season. “I'd say he has pushed himself to the top of that group.”
Obviously it's early, but Gurley has already continued his upward trajectory from a breakout freshman season where he rushed for 1,385 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.
There was his 75-yard touchdown run against Clemson where he exploded through a hole and outran everyone to the end zone. And then there were runs Saturday like the one where he somehow stayed on his feet when South Carolina defensive lineman Kelcy Quarles ripped off his helmet by the facemask, and very well might have scored a helmetless touchdown if not for the rule that requires such a play to be blown dead. Or when he burst down the sideline during a second-quarter touchdown drive and easily tossed Gamecocks cornerback Jimmy Legree aside with a vicious stiff-arm.
“Watching film on him, he's by far in my opinion -- anyone who watched him would probably agree with me -- the best player in the country. I don't think there's anyone like Todd,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said Monday.
He might not enjoy the spotlight, but Gurley possesses the total package that a Heisman-contending running back needs in order to generate national attention. Now he needs his teammates to help him remain in the conversation.
Spread-offense quarterbacks have the odds in their favor in this day and age, although that position held the advantage even before dual-threat passers like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel claimed each of the last three Heismans. Quarterbacks have won 11 of the last 13 years, so Gurley not only needs to separate himself from other running backs with impressive yardage totals and highlight-reel runs, he needs Georgia to remain in the BCS conversation in order to remain a viable alternative to quarterbacks like Manziel, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Ohio State's Braxton Miller.
“It's hard for a running back to win, but if he does win, he has to have as little competition from other running backs in the race as possible,” Huston said. “Gurley's first task is to sort of establish himself as the running back alternative to whatever quarterbacks there are.”
Then again, he must also separate himself from his own teammate to become a true Heisman frontrunner.
Murray reignited his Heisman hopes with a nearly flawless 309-yard, four-touchdown performance against South Carolina. Interestingly enough, however, Huston said the perception that two contending teammates might siphon votes away from one another isn't necessarily accurate.
As an example, he used the 2004 race where USC quarterback Matt Leinart won and running back teammate Reggie Bush finished fifth. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and Jason White finished second and third that year. In other words, members of the two teams that played for the BCS championship took up four of the top five spots in the voting -- and their respective abilities likely helped their teammates from a performance and publicity standpoint.
“You could argue that Jason White's support cost Peterson the Heisman, but you could also say that Bush's support cost Leinart more votes in that situation,” Huston said. “Would Peterson have gotten more votes if White wasn't as good? So it's kind of a symbiotic relationship between the two. If Aaron Murray wasn't as good, Gurley probably wouldn't be as successful because teams would be able to key on him more.”