In the first installment of a three-part look over the next two weeks at the New Year's Day game in Jacksonville, Fla., we examine the impact of Gurley and Abdullah.
Todd Gurley, Georgia
2013 Stats: 144 attempts, 903 yards, 10 TDs; 30 catches, 344 yards, 5 TDs
Season recap: Gurley strained his quadriceps while completing a 75-yard touchdown run in the second possession of the opener against Clemson. The injury limited him to 12 carries (for 154 yards) in the opener and plagued him for weeks -- right up to when he sprained his ankle in Game 4 against LSU and missed the next three games. Gurley returned to total 187 yards against Florida, but has never been the same dominant runner this season. And yet he still posted huge numbers down the stretch, including a 157-yard game against Auburn and a 158-yard game against Georgia Tech.
What he means to the offense: Georgia is a completely different team when Gurley is in the lineup. Take his four-touchdown outing against Georgia Tech, for example. Georgia ran four plays in the two overtime periods -- all of which were Gurley runs and two of which went for touchdowns. It's no coincidence that the offense bogged down, or that the Bulldogs lost twice, when Gurley sat out with the ankle injury.
Season highlight: The Georgia Tech game was probably the biggest highlight, but Gurley had a series of strong outings. He ran for 132 yards and had his first career touchdown catch in a narrow win against South Carolina. And the Bulldogs probably don't beat Florida without Gurley's two early touchdowns.
Biggest change from 2012: Georgia made it an offseason point of emphasis to work its running backs into the passing game more heavily, and it paid off. Gurley was a potent receiving weapon down the stretch, logging 87 receiving yards against Florida, 77 against Auburn and 90 against Kentucky. Only four Bulldogs finished with more receiving yards than Gurley's 344 and he tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches.
Against Nebraska last year: Gurley rushed for 81 of his 125 yards and scored a touchdown in the first half of the Bulldogs' 45-31 win against Nebraska in last season's Capital One Bowl.
Crystal ball: Without question, a healthy Gurley ranks among the nation's best running backs. He hasn't been healthy much this season and is still poised to rush for more than 1,000 yards. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see him rank among the nation's leading Heisman Trophy contenders in 2014 and sit near the top of most projections for NFL draft-eligible running backs at this time next season.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
2013 stats: 254 attempts, 1,568 yards, 8 TDs; 26 catches, 232 yards, 2 TDs
Season recap: En route to third-team All-America honors by the Associated Press and a consensus spot on the All-Big Ten first team, the junior from Homewood, Ala., topped 100 yards 10 times. He also recorded the fifth 1,500-yard rushing season at Nebraska, cementing his spot among the school’s storied history of backs.
What he means to the offense: Much like Gurley, just about everything. Nebraska this year went offensively as far as Abdullah could lead it. Conservatively, he was worth two wins to this team. The stats are impressive, but they don’t measure his value. He is the heartbeat of these Huskers, illustrated by his naming as a captain at season’s end, team MVP and lifter of the year.
Season highlight: Start with his breakthrough game in the Big Ten opener against Illinois, as Abdullah rushed for a career-best 225 yards. He churned out 123 against Michigan State’s top-rated defense. Looking for one play? Take your pick between the game-winning touchdown catch at Michigan or the 16-yard conversion on fourth-and-15 against Northwestern that set the stage for Nebraska’s Hail Mary win.
Biggest change from 2012: Even after Abdullah rushed for 1,137 yards as a sophomore, questions remained about his durability. He was, after all, a fill-in last year for Rex Burkhead, the workhorse who missed much of the season with a knee injury. Abdullah left no doubt this year about his toughness and developed into a complete back as his per-carry average jumped from 5.0 to 6.2.
Against Georgia last year: Abdullah rushed for 48 yards on seven carries, with the bulk of Nebraska’s work on the ground going to the senior Burkhead. Abdullah’s 26-yard run on the Huskers’ opening drive of the third quarter helped them take a 31-23 lead before the Bulldogs scored the final 22 points.
Crystal ball: Abdullah will seek an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but he’s not likely to long consider their findings. Expect him back in 2014, bidding to become the first player in Nebraska history to amass three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. If he can avoid fumbles -- Abdullah lost five this year and 15 over three seasons -- a run at the Heisman isn’t out of the question.