HOOVER, Ala. - Todd Gurley, arguably the marquee attraction among players at SEC Media Days, showed up on Thursday. That the Georgia running back was able to slip through the Wynfrey Hotel lobby without having to deal with more than a few autograph requests says something about the SEC star-power outage in the Hoover metro area.
The circus that was 2013 SEC Media Days featured South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney claiming quarterbacks were afraid of him one day and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel explaining his mysterious departure from the Manning Passing Academy the next.
Gurley is scary enough for opponents. But on Throwback Thursday, a soft-spoken guy from Tarboro, N.C., talked about conventional football things.
Like the pursuit of an SEC championship and the season opener against Clemson.
"It's definitely going to be exciting," Gurley said. "We went there last year for the first game and we lost. To have them coming back to Athens this year, it's going to be a great one. We definitely want that win. Everybody's going to be pumped up. It's going to be a great game."
What a difference a year makes. With Manziel and Clowney on hand last year, prominent quarterbacks A.J. McCarron of Alabama, Connor Shaw of South Carolina, Aaron Murray of Georgia and Zach Mettenberger of LSU were supporting actors.
On Thursday, Gurley was in a lead role.
"If he stays healthy, I think he's one of the better players in America, no doubt about it," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said of the 6-1, 225-pound junior.
The SEC's Heisman race
It's a bigger "if" than with most running backs. Gurley's churning style brings on extra hits, and he missed three games in October last season with an ankle injury.
Gurley (98.9) is just behind Alabama's T.J. Yeldon (102.9) and just ahead of South Carolina's Mike Davis (98.6) in rushing yards per game among the SEC's leading returning rushers. Because Gurley played in only 10 games, he ran for 989 yards - well back of Yeldon (1,235) and Davis (1,183).
All three are Heisman Trophy candidates.
But Yeldon, Alabama's top skill-position player, didn't come to SEC Media Days.
Davis was also left home.
If Gurley can't win the SEC rushing title, he wants his buddy Davis on top.
"I want him to have a great game every game," Gurley said. "I want him to have a great game against us."
If the feeling is mutual going into the South Carolina-Georgia game in Columbia on Sept. 13, Davis probably won't loudly share it with teammates. Gurley rushed for 132 yards on 30 carries in the Bulldogs' 41-30 victory in Athens last September. He rushed for one touchdown, and caught a touchdown pass.
So the Gamecocks have the revenge factor going their way this year, but Gurley and the Bulldogs embrace their own burden of proof coming into the season.
Talking USC and Clemson
Georgia was picked second in the SEC East behind South Carolina and ahead of Florida in the SEC Media Days poll.
"We have the potential," Gurley said. "You can't promise anything because you don't know what's going to happen. But that's definitely a goal. Why not?"
And, ouch, Clemson. The Tigers heavily recruited Gurley (along with fellow Georgia running back Keith Marshall and South Carolina's Davis). Gurley got off to a great start against the Tigers, rushing for 154 yards in the 2013 season-opener. He silenced Death Valley with a 75-yard touchdown run.
But he pulled a quadriceps muscle on the big play and Georgia lost, 38-35.
"I remember getting hurt," Gurley said. "I definitely don't want to get hurt in the first game this year."
The SEC needs all the star power it can get going into the second week of the season.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff