HOOVER, Ala. — Mark Richt wishes the best for Aaron Murray and "We wish his brother well on ‘The Bachelorette,’ by the way," he quipped.
It was a moment of levity from the Georgia coach in dealing with the turnover at the position in the SEC. A year ago, all 14 teams boasted players with vast starting experience, including three of the biggest names in college football with Murray, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.
This season, six teams have passers with four career starts or less, including Georgia’s Hutson Mason (two) and LSU’s Anthony Jennings (one), and while there is plenty of promise among the QBs, the spotlight in the conference has without question shifted.
Georgia Todd Gurley and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon — both juniors — were among the three highest vote getters in the preseason media selections, headlining arguably the nation’s deepest collection of running backs.
The SEC returns three 1,000-yard RBs in Yeldon (1,235 yards), South Carolina junior Mike Davis (1,183) and Arkansas sophomore Alex Collins (1,026), while Auburn senior QB Nick Marshall also went over that plateau at 1,068. Gurley fell 11 yards short despite missing all or part of three games, but has a four-figure season on his resume with 1,385 in 2012.
Add in the arrival of Leonard Fournette, the top-rated player in the Class of 2014, at LSU — on his new rusher, Les Miles said "he expects himself to be something very special." — and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd and it looks to be nauseating for the opposition.
"The thing that’s going to make it exceptionally challenging for defenses is all these great running backs have different styles of play," said Tennessee coach Butch Jones. "They have a uniqueness that’s only common to themselves. You have some individuals who are extremely quick with great makeâyouâmiss, some are more northâandâsouth runners."
While Gurley says he isn’t one to chase individual goals — he said of the Heisman Trophy "I’m just happy to play the game, I don’t need an award." — he did perk up at the notion of a run at 2,000 yards, something no SEC back has ever done.
"If I could get 2,000 yards … that would be awesome," Gurley said. "If the Lord could bless me with that, Oh my gosh. Yeah, that’s going to be pretty tough to do in the SEC."
It is a daunting proposition and not just because of a league that had six defenses rank in the top 25 last season, but because of the depth even among the teams with the players that amount top the top tier of SEC runners.
Gurley’s backfield mate, Keith Marshall, was named third-team all-conference and Yeldon shares space and carries with Derrick Henry (10.6 yards per carry) and Kenyan Drake (694 yards), who Nick Saban said Thursday is suspended but not kicked off the team after a recent arrest.
Even Davis will have a healthy Brandon Wilds (107 carries in 2011) with him for the Gamecocks, and Arkansas has Jonathan Williams (900 yards) to go along with Collins, the reigning league Freshman of the Year.
There’s no rivalry among the conference’s top backs, at least from Gurley’s perspective. He is friends with Davis — the two speak often and Gurley says "I want him to be great, just like I want to be great." — and admits he studies film of a number of the SEC’s runners.
But who is the best?
When asked for his input, Crimson Tide safety Landon Collins toed the line.
"(Yeldon) is one of the great running backs in this SEC and in the NCAA … But I guess I’ll leave that up to you all to decide who the best running back is," he said.
Richt wouldn’t go that far when discussing Gurley’s place either, but did offer this:
"I think he’s one of the better players in America, no doubt about it," he said. "If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky’s the limit for him."
At least one player in attendance at the Wynfrey Hotel was able to make a decisive pick in the SEC running back pecking order.
"Todd is the best running back in the nation," said Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson.
Quarterbacks will certainly emerge.
When asked about the state of the league’s QB play and the bigger names in the conference largely residing at running back, Richt was quick to point out the relative preseason obscurity of the last two Heisman winners.
"How many seasons start out where you just don’t know what a guy’s going to do? Even Jameis Winston, Johnny Football, their first year of starting, all of a sudden they win the Heisman. So anything can happen with a guy who gets his opportunity.
I wouldn’t count out the quarterbacks in this league to play great."
Still, if a running back is going to end a four-year run of dual-threat QBs winning the Heisman, there’s a strong bet it could come from the SEC.
Only the Big Ten returns more 1,000-yard RBs with four — the ACC and Pac-12 each have one and the Big 12 has none — but the SEC landed 11 of the 53 players on the Doak Walker Award watch list, three more than the Big Ten.
In the Chinese calendar, 2014 is the Year of the Horse. The SEC calendar has a decidedly different lunar chart, where it looks to be the Year of the Running Back.
"It’s going to be an extremely talented group of running backs," Jones said.