How the best running back tandem in college football history willed Georgia to the national title game

ATLANTA — One of them is from Cedartown, population 9,799, an unremarkable map dot in West Georgia near the Alabama state line.

The other is from the sprawl of South Florida, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, an area teeming with big-city energy.

The small-town guy is an agriculture and applied economics major. He’s painfully reticent in public. A man of few words on a loquacious day, and no words on other days.

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The city guy is a communications major with a side hustle as a rapper. He’s released a couple of his own tracks under the name “FlyGuy2Stackz.”

The quiet guy is more of a pounder, 225 pounds of bad intent. He will run through tacklers.

The louder guy is more slash and dash, 215 pounds of speed and moves. He will run away from tacklers.

The South Florida guy visited Cedartown once with the country guy. “Nothing much there,” the city guy said. “It was something very eye-opening to me.”

These two men, from vastly different places and with vastly different personalities, have become best friends, roommates, and one of the greatest running back tandems in the history of college football. They are the two biggest reasons Georgia is playing Alabama on Monday for the national championship.

If not for the decisions by tailbacks Nick Chubb (L) and Sony Michel to return for their senior seasons, Georgia almost assuredly wouldn’t have made the College Football Playoff. (AP)
If not for the decisions by tailbacks Nick Chubb (L) and Sony Michel to return for their senior seasons, Georgia almost assuredly wouldn’t have made the College Football Playoff. (AP)

Nick Chubb, the silent man from a quiet place, has run for 4,744 yards and 44 touchdowns as a Bulldog. Sony Michel, the outgoing guy from a lively place, has run for 3,540 yards and 33 touchdowns at Georgia. Their 8,259 combined yards has surpassed the fabled SMU “Pony Express” duo of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, making Chubb and Michel the most productive concurrent running back tandem in FBS history.

And they were at their very best in Georgia’s thrilling 54-48 Rose Bowl semifinal victory over Oklahoma on New Year’s Day. Chubb gashed the Sooners for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Michel ripped through them for 181 yards and three TDs. The last of those scores will be remembered in Georgia lore, ending that taut battle in double overtime.

“Look, 27 [Chubb’s number] and 1 [Michel], they put this team on their shoulders,” head coach Kirby Smart said after the Rose Bowl. “All they do is do it right.”

Despite the huge production, the two combined for just 25 carries against Oklahoma. Their shoulders could have handled more. It could be argued that the game wouldn’t even have gone into overtime if Bulldogs offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had given his best weapons the ball an additional 10 times.

But the last thing you will get from either Chubb or Michel is an ounce of complaint about play calls or workload. Their compatibility and unselfishness has been a driving force for this team, a near-obsession with team success that has permeated the Georgia locker room.

“When you say, ‘This is what I want a football player to be,’ they’re it,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who was in the same position at Georgia when Chubb and Michel were freshmen and sophomores.

The surprise — and the turning point — for the Georgia program came when Chubb and Michel decided they needed to finish out their college eligibility.

Thirteen months ago, the assumption was that Chubb was leaving for the National Football League. The question was whether Michel would join him.

Chubb and Michel went out to dinner to talk. Chubb surprised his friend by saying he wanted to stay for his senior year. Michel said he planned on returning as well.

Shortly thereafter, Chubb called Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart to give him his greatest recruiting win of the year. Then Michel called. And in mid-December 2016, the first strides were taken toward this unexpected national championship bid.

“This was our goal coming back,” Michel said Saturday at CFP championship media day. “We’re here, trying to take full advantage of it.”

Their motivation was simple, yet increasingly rare in college football: They didn’t like where the program was at the end of their junior year, and wanted to do something about it. Georgia had stumbled to a 7-5 regular season record, losing the finale at home to rival Georgia Tech. After watching the Yellow Jackets plant a flag on the field in Sanford Stadium and clipping out branches of the Bulldogs’ hallowed hedges, Chubb decided he couldn’t leave.

“I didn’t want to go out like that,” Chubb said. “We wanted to leave a legacy.”

Legacy building started with offseason leadership. Chubb and Michel stepped up, along with fellow seniors Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, who also turned down entering the NFL draft last year. They laid down the expectations, and their teammates rose to meet them.

“They were able to impact this team’s offseason,” said running backs coach Dell McGee. “They showed the young guys what hard work looks like. We’re in this position because of those guys.”

That position is trying to crack an Alabama defense that leads the nation in rushing defense and total defense, having suffocated Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. It’s Georgia’s first crack at the lordly Crimson Tide since Chubb and Michel were sophomores, in 2015, a game that altered the course of the Bulldogs program.

The game was between the hedges, and Georgia came in with the higher ranking (No. 8 to Alabama’s No. 13). Hopes were high for a long-awaited breakthrough by a program with a history of falling just a bit short in the big games.

Georgia fell a lot short that day, being pummeled 38-10. That all but sealed longtime coach Mark Richt’s fate, eventually clearing the way for Smart to arrive. Two years into the Smart Era, the ‘Dogs now can measure their growth since the last Alabama game.

This is what Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia’s legacy-building odd couple, came back to do.

“We finally get a chance,” Michel said, “to play for something big.”

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