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Running game could be deciding factor if Georgia is to beat TCU

So much of Kirby Smart’s Georgia tenure has been spent with an eye on the future. But if Smart is to notch his first bowl victory as a head coach in Friday’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl (noon ET, ESPN), it will be by relying on the offensive formula that has worked for the Bulldogs since before Smart got the job.

The Bulldogs (7-5) will almost certainly ride tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel against a TCU defense that struggled against the run late in the season. If Georgia’s inconsistent offensive line can provide enough space for its two star backs to sustain drives, the Bulldogs have to like their chances of winning.

That dynamic duo has led the Bulldogs to plenty of wins over the past three seasons -- Chubb was the team’s leading rusher in an unbelievable 2014, and the multitalented Michel took over as leading rusher last year when Chubb suffered a season-ending injury -- and Smart was recently pleased to learn that trend will continue.

Both juniors announced earlier this month that they intend to return in 2017.

“I think it shows a lot about the commitment to where the program’s headed that both guys chose to stay in school and come back and help us build something special,” Smart told reporters at Thursday’s bowl news conference. “Both of them were very open to me about wanting to finish it the right way.”

Back to the present, recent trends certainly seem to be in Georgia’s favor. The Bulldogs’ running game has mostly been productive since a pitiful midseason slump during which they totaled 96 rushing yards in losses to Vanderbilt and Florida. In the ensuing four games, Georgia ran for an average of 212 yards per game, with Michel (98.3 YPG in those games) and Chubb (95.5) both scoring two touchdowns.

Meanwhile, TCU (6-6) hardly looks like the defensive juggernaut Gary Patterson frequently trotted out after arriving in Fort Worth as defensive coordinator in 1998 and rising to head coach after the 2000 season. The Horned Frogs rank 72nd nationally against the run (180.7 YPG) and gave up some particularly big numbers in a late-season slump in which they lost four of their final six games.

Oklahoma State ran for 334 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-6 win over TCU and Kansas State closed the season by going for 336 yards and three scores in a 30-6 victory. In between, the Horned Frogs ran away from Texas and Heisman Trophy contender D'Onta Freeman 31-9, with Freeman (31 carries, 165 yards) posting his lowest rushing total in the final five games.

Can Georgia exploit the holes in TCU’s defense, though? Unlike Oklahoma State and Kansas State, there is no legitimate threat of a quarterback run in Georgia’s offense, and only a limited version of the East-West running that accompanies those wide-open spread attacks. Save for the occasional Wildcat snap or jet sweep to a receiver such as Isaiah McKenzie, the Bulldogs are mostly a downhill running team that TCU simply must play tough defense to stop.

If the Bulldogs are able to move the chains and sustain drives, thereby keeping the Horned Frogs’ up-tempo offense on the sideline, that fits nicely with their preferred style of play. Let’s remember to note here that Georgia ranks eighth nationally in time of possession (33 minutes, 44 seconds).

Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason will be without injured receivers Riley Ridley (ankle) and Michael Chigbu (knee), but still has McKenzie, Terry Godwin and tight end Isaac Nauta at his disposal. However, those guys will most likely be supporting players to Chubb and Michel’s main act if Georgia executes its game plan correctly.

Eason guided Georgia to a comeback win at Missouri and connected with Ridley on a last-minute deep ball that should have beaten Tennessee, but the Bulldogs don’t want the freshman to have to best Kenny Hill in a shootout in the finale. The old saying is that slow and steady wins the race, and if Chubb and Michel are able to make that approach work against TCU, Georgia should come out with a victory.