ATHENS, Ga. – Todd Gurley ruined his hopes of winning the Heisman Trophy by taking money for autographs.
He could still help his team capture a championship.
After serving a four-game suspension for violating NCAA rules, Gurley returns to the Georgia backfield just in time for No. 16 Georgia's huge Southeastern Conference game against ninth-ranked Auburn.
Georgia (7-2, 5-2 SEC) could clinch a spot in the SEC championship game with a victory Saturday night, if Missouri loses at Texas A&M in a game that kicks off at roughly the same time.
"I want everybody to be excited about Todd being back," coach Mark Richt said. "But let's focus on the game. Let's focus on Georgia."
Missouri has lost only once in the SEC (a 34-0 blowout by Georgia) but still has three conference games remaining, including another road game at Tennessee before closing the regular season at home against Arkansas.
"We know we're still going to need some help," Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. "But with us playing one (SEC) game and Missouri playing three games, I kind of like the odds."
While Auburn (7-2, 4-2) hasn't given up on its title hopes, the Tigers took a major blow last week when they were stunned at home by 23-point underdog Texas A&M.
Even if Auburn wins out — no small feat with a game at No. 4 Alabama remaining — the Tigers would need top-ranked Mississippi State to lose two of its last three SEC contests to have any chance of defending their conference title.
"We have a lot of veteran guys and a lot of seniors that have been through a lot of good and a lot of bad," coach Gus Malzahn said. "It is their leadership that makes it easier to put that loss behind you."
Georgia certainly did a good job of handling Gurley's suspension. Especially freshman Nick Chubb, who rushed for 671 yards and five touchdowns.
"The guys just really stepped up," quarterback Hutson Mason said. "It seems like the whole team came together after losing a pretty spectacular player."
Here are some other things to watch for when Georgia faces Auburn in the Deep South's oldest rivalry:
DEFENSIVE WOES: Both teams appeared to be improving defensively earlier in the season, but they've stumbled badly the past few weeks. Auburn has given up an average of 487 yards and 36 points over its last four games. Georgia, meanwhile, surrendered a staggering 418 yards rushing in an upset loss to Florida and struggled a week ago to slow Kentucky in the first half, though the offense made that a moot point in a 63-31 victory.
MASON STEPS UP: Mason is coming off his best game of the season, throwing a career-best four touchdown passes in the victory over Kentucky. Gurley and Chubb will surely carry the bulk of the offensive load Saturday, but Mason will be looking for chances to burn the vulnerable Auburn secondary.
SPECIAL TEAMS: In a game that appears evenly matched on offense and defense, special teams could play a deciding role. Auburn has a dynamic weapon with Quan Bray, who has returned two punts for touchdowns and leads the nation with a 20.5-yard average. Georgia's Isaiah McKenzie returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against Kentucky, while Gurley has a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD.
INJURY REPORT: Auburn will likely be without leading receiver D'haquille Williams, who injured his right knee against Texas A&M. The junior college transfer has 38 receptions for 609 yards and five touchdowns. Georgia freshman running back Sony Michel is slowed by a sore ankle. He was hurt in his first game back from a shoulder injury. Despite missing four games, Michel is Georgia's third-leading rusher (307 yards) and averages 7.9 yards per carry.
CLOSE RIVALRY: These teams first met in 1892 and have played nearly every year since then. Auburn holds the slightest of advantages in wins (55-54-8), while Georgia has outscored the Tigers by an average of just 0.9 points per game. In a strange twist, the home-field advantage doesn't have much bearing on the outcome. Georgia holds a 15-11-2 edge in games played at Auburn, while the Tigers are 18-12 at Sanford Stadium.
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