TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Over the years, Alabama has become accustomed to freshman tailbacks making a splash. There was Mark Ingram bursting on the scene in 2008, Trent Richardson doing the same in 2009 and Eddie Lacy following the lead in 2010.
Then came T.J. Yeldon this year, powering his way to 847 yards and 10 touchdowns in a backup role behind Lacy. The thunder-and-lightning combo have accounted for 1,848 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. If they were one back, they'd lead the country in rushing.
"We've been extremely pleased with what T.J. has done consistently throughout the year, as well as his production and consistency game in and game out," UA coach Nick Saban said, pointing out that "the combination of the two is probably most effective."
But if you're looking to call Yeldon the best freshman running back in the SEC or deem the Alabama backfield the best in the country, think again. The Georgia Bulldogs have something to say about that.
The outlook for Mark Richt's backfield began the season in bleak fashion, but has recovered in a big way. Isaiah Crowell, last year's AP Freshman of the Year and Georgia's leading rusher, was arrested for possession of a firearm and dismissed from the team during the offseason. Backup Carlton Thomas transferred after multiple disciplinary issues. Enter a pair of freshmen who would earn a nickname that is both catchy and memorable. Their play could be described the same way, too.
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have starred at Georgia from the season opener against Buffalo, rushing for 151 yards and two touchdowns while quickly becoming known as the "Gurshall" combo. The two have outdone the Alabama backfield, accounting for 1,878 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.
If ESPN National Recruiting Director and College Football Analyst Tom Luginbill was forced to choose which backfield he'd want, he'd go with the Georgia rookies over Alabama's tandem of backs. It's what hours of film study and player evaluations have told him.
"I would tend to lean to Gurshall as I think both of those guys may provide a bit more in the passing game and Marshall is the biggest home-run threat of the four," he said, noting that Gurley has been the biggest surprise of all.
Yeldon, a four-star prospect, and Marshall, a five-star, ranked among the top five at their position last year by ESPN. When high school coaches around the state were asked about Yeldon, who attended high school in Daphne, Ala., they said to watch out, he could take over if Lacy ever missed a game. Lacy didn't go down but that hasn't stopped Yeldon from making his mark. He's been a balanced back from Day 1, not quite the big-play threat of Marshall or the between-the-tackles runner like Gurley.
"Each guy provides a change of pace," Luginbill explained. "Yeldon and Marshall are more home-run types and Lacy and Gurley are more bruiser types. What makes Yeldon so good is he is a bit of both."
What makes Gurley, who comes in at 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, different is that he very well could have ended up playing a different position at Georgia. The former four-star prospect wasn't a full-time running back in high school and projected as a hybrid athlete in Richt's system. He could have very well ended up at linebacker or safety. When Crowell and Thomas left, he entered the backfield by necessity.
"Seeing him full-time now, you have an appreciation for his subtle elusiveness and power," Luginbill said. Gurley is second in the SEC to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in rushing yards this season.
"They've run the ball extremely well throughout this year," Saban said of Gurley and Marshall. "Todd has obviously played the most, but both of those guys are really good players."
As Luginbill pointed out, it's not that any of the freshman running backs have been surprises. All one had to do was look at their ability and the ability of those around them. Saban couldn't agree more. With Aaron Murray under center and the Georgia line leading the way, it's been smooth sailing for the Bulldogs' offense.
"They have a good offensive line that creates a tremendous amount of balance for them with a good quarterback who is able to complete a high percentage of his passes and a lot of rhythm-type throws that certainly complement their running game," Saban explained. "I think this is an outstanding team because of the balance that is created by their ability to run the ball effectively with good runners, as well as having a good quarterback and good skill guys outside to make plays in the passing game."