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It’s Georgia’s one-two punch vs. Alabama’s top-ranked defense in CFP title game

Georgia tailbacks Nick Chubb, left, and Sony Michel decided to return for their senior season. That decision helped catapult Georgia into the national championship game against Alabama.
Georgia tailbacks Nick Chubb, left, and Sony Michel decided to return for their senior season. That decision helped catapult Georgia into the national championship game against Alabama.
(Curtis Compton / Associated Press)

If you want to know about Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as football players, it might be instructive to look at them as roommates.

After two years of living together, the Georgia tailbacks have grown accustomed to each other’s habits.

“He’s clean,” Chubb says. “I’m dirty.”

The same could be said of their styles on the field, where Chubb is more of a power runner while Michel uses a little more finesse.

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Together they represent a dangerous one-two punch, the most prolific backfield duo in college football history and, perhaps, a deciding factor in the upcoming College Football Playoff championship game.

If the Bulldogs hope to defeat Alabama on Monday night, Chubb and Michel will have to run the ball effectively against the top-ranked defense in the nation.

“They’re as good as advertised,” Michel said of the Crimson Tide. “We expect nothing but hard-nosed football from them.”

The challenge is quantifiable, given that Alabama has held opponents to an average of 91.8 yards on the ground this season.

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“The first thing we’re going to talk about is being able to stop the run,” Jeremy Pruitt, the Crimson Tide defensive coordinator, said. “If you can stop the run, you’ve got a chance to have success.”

On the flipside, Georgia and its freshman quarterback have leaned on the ground attack, averaging 267.4 yards. As seniors, Chubb and Michel both have surpassed the 1,000-yard mark this fall, boosting their career totals to a combined 8,259 yards.

That has moved them past Eric Dickerson and Craig James – of Southern Methodist fame in the early 1980s – on the all-time list for tandem running backs.

“Definitely crazy,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “It shows you the type of athletes they are.”

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Chubb and Michel first met at a 2014 high school all-star game but didn’t have much to say to each other. Their friendship would not blossom until later, when they arrived on campus in Athens the next fall.

That first season, the Bulldogs lost starter Todd Gurley to suspension and then injury, which opened the door for Chubb to rush for 1,547 yards as a freshman.

The tables turned in 2015 when Chubb suffered a season-ending injury and Michel took over as the starter, running for 1,161 yards.

The players are physically similar, both standing a bit under 6 feet, with Chubb a little heavier at 225. By their junior season, they had become close friends and decided to rent a place with other teammates.

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“Just by being running backs, we were always together,” Michel said. “We were always competing with each other, getting better by competing with each other.”

This friendly rivalry extended to offseason bowling which, Chubb says, “was probably more competitive than football.”

They would finally get a chance to shine at the same time in 2016 as Georgia embarked on a rebuilding process under new coach Kirby Smart.

Chubb gained 1,130 yards and Michel added 840, helping the Bulldogs to an 8-5 record and a victory over Texas Christian in the Liberty Bowl.

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At that point, the friends considered leaving school early to turn professional. They wanted to give each other space, to decide independently, and did not talk about the situation until the last moment.

“We were on the same page even though we didn’t know it,” Chubb recalled. “Knowing he was coming back definitely made it a lot easier for me to finally commit.”

As Michel said: “Our whole focus was, let’s get to work.”

Their return became doubly important in the season opener, when quarterback Jacob Eason went down with an injury, forcing Georgia to play freshman Jake Fromm.

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Chubb and Michel combined for 183 yards and three touchdowns against Appalachian State that day, offering a glimpse of things to come.

Against Tennessee, Chubb led the team with 109 yards. The next week at Vanderbilt, Michel had a game-high 150.

“Chubb is more of a north-south runner, but he can bounce the ball … and cut back on the zone runs,” Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “Sony Michel, he’s more of a slasher. He’s going to make you miss in the open field.”

As Georgia climbed the national rankings, it seemed the run-heavy attack could work. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had preferences regarding which back to have in the game on certain plays, but found they were interchangeable enough.

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The biggest concern might have been keeping them happy.

“I mean, they demand the touches,” Chaney said. “They have to get the ball.”

But with the Bulldogs running so often – and winning – Chubb and Michel have remained content, even with D’Andre Swift working into the rotation as a third option.

With that kind of depth, Georgia always has fresh legs in the backfield.

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“It’s not like I see [Chubb] make a big play and I want to go in there,” Michel said. “If he makes a big play … that means he’s on fire, he needs to finish the work he’s done.”

Last week, in the CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl, the pair accounted for 326 yards against Oklahoma. Chubb had two rushing touchdowns and Michel had three, including a 27-yarder that won the game in double overtime.

The tandem now has a chance to finish college with a national title, something the players talked about last year when pondering the NFL.

“That was the vision,” Michel said.

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The road to the CFP championship, they say, has been all the better because they traveled it together.

“Just to go out there and compete and have fun with someone you’re close to – you couldn’t ask for anything more,” Chubb said.

And what about their different standards of neatness?

“He’s not filthy,” Michel said. “I don’t have any problem with it.”

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david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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