LITTLE ROCK - Georgia is not better without Todd Gurley. The Bulldogs' back-to-back conference road wins since the former Heisman front-runner's suspension are not proof of addition by subtraction, even though the Bulldogs have momentarily survived his absence.
UGA's offense has put up 79 points in two weeks without its star, but no Georgia player would ever attribute any of that to the absence of Gurley, perhaps the best player in college football before he was snagged in a local autograph dealer's kamikaze plot. They do have opinions on his suspension itself, though.
"I want them to do what's right. If you have proof, do something, if you don't, let the man play. I love Todd and I support him in his situation," Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley said after the Bulldogs' 45-32 win over Arkansas. The senior receiver finished the day with five catches, 128 yards, and a touchdown, as Georgia's offense balanced the emergence of Gurley's replacement, freshman running back Nick Chubb, with a passing attack Mark Richt called "aggressive."
"I don't work with the NCAA anymore. My sentiments and my thoughts are here with my team," Conley, who was elected to represent the SEC as part of the NCAA's Student Athlete Advisory Committee for two years in 2012, said.
Conley said that Georgia didn't expect Arkansas to prep for an unbalanced attack to compensate for Gurley's absence or Chubb's success the previous week at Missouri. Moreover, Georgia didn't deliver one.
"We're not [doing anything different.]. We're really not," Conley said. "We've always been a team that prides itself on having the second- and third- and fourth-string guys ready to play. That's what you're told from the time you come to Georgia: 'You're one play away from being the starter, or one off-field incident from being a starter.' Chubb, all those guys, practiced everyday like they'd be the starter, and now that's the product you're seeing now out of Nick Chubb."
Does that mean UGA can survive and win a conference title without Gurley? Maybe.
But what we know is that in life without Gurley, the Dawgs have proven themselves against two teams understood to be very mediocre, and at 6-1 still control their own destiny in a poor SEC East. The hollowness of the division makes Georgia even more impossible to define in the larger College Football Playoff picture. Was a road game at Arkansas, the statistically worst team in the West, Georgia's best win of the season? Maybe second-best behind a now-injured Clemson?
Consider the sample size. Without Gurley, UGA has experienced only the briefest of adversity. Arkansas opened Saturday's game with a bombastic upset alert, a touchdown drive of 75 yards in almost eight minutes with 10 of 13 plays called as runs. With a rotation of inside pitch and off-tackle runs, the Hogs were momentarily Bret Bielema football exemplar, that violent gotcha-team that should've beaten Alabama.
"I was watching that and had a bad feeling. They were just eating up clock, and I thought maybe we wouldn't get as many scoring chances," quarterback Hutson Mason said.
On Georgia's first play from scrimmage, Mason hit Conley for a 48-yard streak on play action, the kind of explosive pass missing early on in UGA's season. That's a coincidence some will try and marry to a presumed over-reliance on Gurley.
"I know everyone, when we weren't having success throwing the ball deep early in the season, everyone wanted to throw the towel in on us, but people need to relax and understand that in the SEC, it's not going to be easy," Mason said.
Mason finished the day 10-of-17 for 179 yards and two TDs, with no turnovers, a stat line not much more or less impressive than his outings against Tennessee (16-of-25, 147 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) or Vanderbilt (11-of-17, 121 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), the two games this season in which Gurley ran the ball 25 times or more.
"We've really wanted to prove the point that we can pass as well as we run," Conley said.
The Dawgs only needed 17 pass attempts from Mason, because of Arkansas' self-destruction -- trailing 10-6, the Hogs' Tevin Mitchel was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after Arkansas had stopped UGA on third down. Two plays later, Chubb would run for a 46-yard touchdown, followed by 14 more Georgia points off of Arkansas fumbles. Chubb -- 345 yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries in his two starts -- is a different kind of runner than Gurley, but has proven reliable as a closer on late drives.
When the Hogs outscored Georgia, 26-7, in the second half, it was because of a frantically adjusted passing attack. Minus Gurley, Georgia's running back touches have remained the same, and the overall offensive scheme unchanged to the outside eye.
Mason attributed the team's slow build in the passing game to "trust issues" he's worked through with his receivers. When his head coach heard that, he laughed.
"I think sometimes people just need to say something," Mark Richt said after the game. "You want to have an explanation when things are going wrong, and then when things are corrected you want to be able to explain why that happened."