Minus Gurley, Dogs have flaws to overcome

Georgia plays its final regular-season game in seven weeks. In the perfect Bulldog world, there will be a berth in the SEC championship game in two months and a golden ticket to the inaugural college football playoffs in the first two weeks of January.

In other words, at worst -- or best -- Georgia running back Todd Gurley would be free in three months to start making his millions as a professional athlete. But there are growing indications that Gurley couldn't wait and now there's a good chance he has played his final college game.

A source has told the AJC that the NCAA's investigation into whether Gurley profited off his name by signing memorabilia items is "significant." He may not be cleared to play for the rest of the season.

The source said that unlike in last year's case involving Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, the NCAA has evidence that Gurley violated NCAA bylaws. The organization had proof that Manziel signed items last year but could not find evidence that he profited off the signatures and ultimately reached an agreement with Texas A&M to suspend him only for the first half of the Rice game.

The NCAA is expected to reach a decision on Gurley's discipline by early next week.

I'm like most people who believe the NCAA is a misguided and borderline fraudulent organization with an antiquated set of rules. Their belief in the concept of true amateur athletics and that a scholarship should suffice as payment ended when school presidents and athletic directors began compromising academics and cutting multimillion-dollar television and merchandising deals. They recently lost the Ed O'Bannon anti-trust class action suit, which challenged the NCAA's bylaws that prohibit college athletes from profiting off their likenesses

However, those rules still remain on the NCAA books. So if Gurley violated them, he did so knowingly and committed actions that potentially will affect teammates and submarine his team's season. That's not on the NCAA, that's on Gurley.

Georgia officials must be sensitive to perceptions that they are profiting off Gurley's name, even during his suspension. After it was noted in the AJC that GeorgiaDogs.com was still selling Gurley's No. 3 jersey in its online shop, the school removed that from the store on Friday. A search of football jerseys for sale shows only numbers 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 24 and 26.

If the 20-year-old's season really is done and the next time he carries the ball will be in the NFL, we're about to find out something about this Georgia team. Great players like Gurley have the ability to cover up a team's flaws. If those flaws are going to bury Georgia, we'll probably find out pretty early in Saturday's game against Missouri.

Here are a few thoughts going into Saturday's game and potentially the rest of the season without Gurley:

1. It's your show, Hutson Mason: The Bulldogs' quarterback hasn't been impressive. Maybe it's first-time starter jitters. Maybe it's the fact he has mostly had to operate the offense without his two best receivers and down-field threats, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley. Maybe it's the logic of having Gurley, the nation's best player in the backfield, and feeling the obvious need to exploit that. Or maybe Mason just is not that good.

Regardless, this is the time he needs to step up. With backup running backs Sony Michel and Keith Marshall also out, that means Gurley's duties largely will be filled by Nick Chubb and Brendan Douglas against Missouri. That's a solid backfield but not one that's likely to prompt defenses to game-plan around.

Mason will have to make plays so defenses won't feel comfortable stuffing the inside and playing eight-man fronts while leaving outside receivers single-covered. If there's one positive about this week, it's that Mitchell may be back to full strength and Scott-Wesley also is expected to return after missing the first five games with a suspension and injury. Mason needs to play with more assertiveness and show more arm strength than he has to this point.

Mason ranks only 13th among SEC quarterbacks in passing yards with 687. Georgia's offense ranks 10th nationally in rushing and 108th passing. More balance is a mandate.

2. Emotion and resolve to be tested: This has been a more emotionally stable team than some previous ones in Athens. Losing Gurley is a big hit and will test the team's leadership, both in the locker room and on the sideline with coach Mark Richt. If the Dogs can come together and overcome this and somehow still go on to win Saturday and potentially the SEC East Division, it will be one of the great stories of the season.

3. Pruitt's defense needs to grow up: Georgia has had some expected hiccups on the defensive side of the ball because of defections, dismissals and the team's youth. With Gurley out and the offense presumably scoring fewer points, it follows that the Dogs' defense needs to tighten up for the team to have a chance to win close games. Pruitt largely has been praised since coming to Georgia from national champion Florida State in the offseason but he was dealt a difficult hand this season. Like Mason, the defense also needs to continue to improve and show something they haven't.

4. SEC East is wide open: It's clear nobody is running away with the division and the conference's power again seems to be in the West. South Carolina has lost three games and every other team in the East except Missouri (1-0) has lost at least one. So the division, and therefore a berth in the conference championship game, is still there for the taking.

But without Gurley, winning the East, and every game this season, will be significantly more difficult than expected.

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