LSU running back Kenny Hilliard (27) runs the ball into the end zone as Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo (18) defends during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)
ATLANTA -- Mark Richt said Monday he is opening the competition at tailback as No. 18 Georgia has almost a month to prepare for its Outback Bowl game against No. 12 Michigan State.
The bowl game will bring an end to a season of uncertainty at tailback for the Bulldogs. Georgia has had four starters through the season, thanks to injuries and suspensions.
Richt said former starter Richard Samuel, who has missed four games following surgery on his left ankle, should return for the Jan. 2 bowl game in Tampa.
Carlton Thomas started and hurt his left knee in the third quarter of Georgia's 42-10 Southeastern Conference championship game loss to LSU on Saturday.
Freshman Isaiah Crowell, who missed Georgia's win over Georgia Tech with a sprained left ankle, struggled with the injury against LSU.
Richt didn't name a starter for the bowl game.
"You know what, it will be a competitive situation throughout the bowl practice time and we'll just see who is best equipped to do it," Richt said.
Richt says the injury which forced Thomas out of Saturday's game is not serious.
"Before we play, I think he'll have enough time to practice and throw his hat in the ring, too," Richt said.
Samuel, a junior, started three games before hurting his ankle on the final play of a 24-20 win over Florida on Oct. 29.
Crowell leads the team with 847 yards rushing and five touchdowns. He had four 100-yard games, all against Southeastern Conference opponents.
Crowell limped off the field several times against LSU and was held to 15 yards rushing on 10 carries.
"It was never 100 percent the whole game," Crowell said of his ankle. "I just wanted to fight for my team."
Georgia's most dramatic search for help at tailback came against New Mexico State, when Crowell, Thomas and Ken Malcome were suspended. Branden Smith started at cornerback and tailback. Former walk-on Brandon Harton led Georgia with 98 yards rushing in the game.
Malcome, a redshirt freshman, was no better than fourth on Georgia's depth chart entering the LSU game but may have improved his standing with Richt as he led the team with five carries for 37 yards. The Bulldogs set a season low with 78 yards rushing.
"Second half, we did not run the ball very well," Richt said. "It wasn't until Ken Malcome started running the ball that we had a little bit more success. He ran extremely hard. I was proud of him."
Richt tentatively plans to have one practice on Saturday before players focus on final exams and then return for a schedule of 12 to 15 practices in Athens and Tampa.Richt will give his seniors at least one day off from practice and said he will treat that day like an early spring practice, giving younger players the stage. He said he also may give the younger players some snaps in scrimmage situations at the end of at least one practice.
Richt said his emphasis will be on trying to win the game instead of looking ahead to 2012.
"I've always structured our practices to be geared toward trying to win the game," he said. "I hear about a lot of coaches saying `Hey, it's extra spring practice' and all that. There will be some times when we let some young guys get some extra work, but the main goal is to be prepared for the ballgame.
"We've got to take care of school and take final exams and I want guys to enjoy their time with their families during Christmas, but we also want to make sure that when we get to Tampa we'll be ready to play because it's going to be a heck of a ballgame."