The stakes of Georgia’s upcoming game against Auburn have been well-stated with direct SEC Championship implications on the line.

However, the postseason fate of the Bulldogs may take a backseat this weekend, thanks to the long-awaited return of star running back Todd Gurley.

Gurley, who was suspended on Oct. 9 for accepting extra benefits for his autograph, returns after a four-game suspension by the NCAA. During his absence, freshman running back Nick Chubb more than filled Gurley’s shoes, running for 671 yards and five touchdowns on 102 carries.

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Despite not playing since Oct. 4, Gurley was slotted as the team’s No. 1 running back on the updated depth chart.

“Todd’s our starter, that’s pretty plain and simple, at tailback,” head coach Mark Richt said in his Tuesday press conference. “The goal is to try to spread the ball around as much as possible without keeping it from a guy that ought to be carrying it. But he’s going to get his share of carries, that’s for sure, and we’ll find way to get him to touch the ball.”

Prior to the suspension, Gurley was arguably the top running back in all of college football. He averaged 8.22 yards per carry on 94 rushing attempts, tallied eight touchdowns and was firmly entrenched in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Gurley’s return has been highly anticipated by everyone around the Georgia football program. This week was already going to be a huge week for the Bulldogs with the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry this weekend, but the end of Gurley’s suspension will only heighten all of the outside drama for Georgia’s most important game of the season.

Even with all of the discussion and hype surrounding Saturday night, Richt doesn’t anticipate an unusual amount of distraction within the team in regard to his star running back.

“I didn’t want [this week] to become only about Todd’s return,” Richt said. “I didn’t want that to be the whole focus of Georgia. Georgia, you know, it’s a team sport, and you know, we love Todd, we love all our guys. I wanted it to be more of a team focus.”

“I wouldn’t call it a distraction,” said senior defensive tackle Mike Thornton, “because Tood’s never been that kind of guy to put his personal things on us, but it’s definitely going to be great to have him back. It will definitely be a boost to our team, I feel. We all love Todd here. This is a Georgia, and we’re a family.”

Richt added that while it was tough not having Gurley out on the field, there wasn’t any dissension among Gurley and his teammates for violating NCAA rules.

“We’re all human,” Richt said. “We all make mistakes. We all blow it sometimes, you know, and no one’s — no knows what it’s like to live his shoes either. So no one’s throwing stones here. We love our teammate.”

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Gurley returns in time for Georgia’s final three games of the regular season. Although he’s only a junior, he’s expected to leave school early and enter the NFL Draft. Looked upon as a likely first-round pick, Richt believes his suspension shouldn’t hurt his draft stock in the end and that he’s proud of Gurley for being honest — a trait in which NFL teams should want in their players.

“I’m proud of the guy for being truthful. You know, I still think it’s the best policy. I still think if I’m an NFL team and I’m looking at Gurley, I’m going to say you know what, the guy might have done this thing … but I think they care about his character and what kind of person he is.”

“If you make a mistake,” Richt added, “fess up to it, and he did, and I’m proud of him. I’m glad the suspension is over, and I’m looking forward to watching him play.”