It was easy last year. Calling Nick Chubb and Sony Michel the best running back duo in the country was a no-brainer. Georgia’s two backs were that good.
Chubb rushed for 1,345 yards a year ago and Michel wasn’t far behind with 1,227. They ranked second and fifth, respectively, in the SEC. As a team, the Bulldogs led the SEC in rushing and averaged 5.8 yards a carry, and that strong running game carried them all the way to the National Championship Game.
This season, that strong running game is starting to carry Georgia again, too. Just like a year ago, the Bulldogs are averaging 5.8 yards per carry, and this time its Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift carrying the load.
Since Georgia’s bye week, Swift has been like a new man. Having basically two full weeks to rest and rehab, Swift is finally healthy, his groin and ankle injuries no longer an issue. In two crucial SEC East games against Florida and Kentucky, he has been huge.
He rushed for 104 yards against Florida and had a beautiful 33-yard touchdown run. Swift had a career-high 156 yards in the win against Kentucky, with two highlight-reel touchdowns, one that featured ankle-breaking cutbacks and another for 83 yards that showed his burst — and outright speed — were back.
D'Andre Swift, making everyone miss. pic.twitter.com/xYr2dQus3J
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 3, 2018
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have D’Andre Swift healthy again, and what it means to the offense,” SEC Network analyst Tony Barnhart said Monday. “He has that little burst, that little getaway. The first touchdown run was amazing. When Georgia can run the ball the way they want to run the ball, and when (quarterback) Jake Fromm plays the way he can, Georgia is really tough to beat.”
Holyfield had a big day against Kentucky, too, rushing for 115 yards on 18 carries. He’s been the workhorse all year, and his numbers are actually slightly better than Swift’s. He has more carries (103 to 99), more yards (672 to 622) and a better per-carry average (6.5 to 6.3). They’re just a little bit behind Chubb and Michel’s pace. Chubb had 867 yards and Michel 710 entering the Auburn game last year.
Sure, they compete against each other for playing time, but they are clearly each other’s biggest fans.
“We both wanted to come out and prove ourselves this year and have a really good year,” Holyfield said. “Both of us have had a pretty good one so far.”
The Bulldogs are 8-1 now and winners of the SEC East. There are still other goals ahead, and that starts with running the table in the final three games of the regular season. First up is Auburn, a team that humbled Georgia a year ago during the regular season. The Dawgs got them back a few weeks later in the SEC Championship Game.
Auburn held Georgia to 46 yards rushing in the regular season game last year. Holyfield said last year’s loss doesn’t provide any extra motivation this Saturday night. They’ve got plenty to play for already.
“We have enough motivation with what we have going this year,” Holyfield said. “We have a chance to play for many more things down the road and we are just looking forward to playing the game Saturday against a good team, executing and playing our best.
“They definitely (humbled us) last year, so we try not to look over people, and Auburn’s a school where you can’t do that,” he said.
Auburn’s defense, as usual, is stout. They’ve only allowed 5 rushing touchdowns all season, third-fewest in the nation, and those all came in two games. They’ve pitched rushing shutouts in six of their eight games.
“When you look at them defensively, they’re loaded up front,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They’ve got a lot of big guys, they’ve got a lot of players who play a lot of snaps, (and) I mean they’re experienced across the board.”
As good as Georgia’s backs are, you can’t run without solid play from the offensive line. The big guys have done their job, and they’ve done it while fighting through a ton of injuries. Ben Cleveland has been out for a month now, and he’s close to coming back. Freshman Cade Mays injured his shoulder last Saturday and left tackle Andrew Thomas has been battling an ankle injury all season.
“Ben continues to progress,” Smart said Monday of Cleveland. “I thought he could have played if he had to in the last game, so we hope he continues to get better.”
Smart said Mays will be limited all week, too, but should be good to go Saturday night. He had a stinger, which shouldn’t be a long-term issue.
“He’s probably going to be limited today and we don’t know how much further it will go, but we expect to get him back,” Smart said Monday. “And I know he’s a tough kid and he’ll push through it. … But, again, he’s tough, competitive, a lot like the rest of our freshman class.”