The 2017 college football season ended in early January with Georgia players dejectedly walking off the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and with Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart issuing a guarantee that nobody has questioned in the weeks since.
"I think everybody can see that Georgia is going to be a force to be reckoned with," Smart said minutes after the 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the title game of the four-team playoff. "I'm very proud of this team and university. We're not going anywhere."
Georgia raced out to a 9-0 start last season and rebounded from a lopsided loss at Auburn by pulling away from the Tigers in a rematch for the Southeastern Conference championship. The loss to the Crimson Tide in such dramatic fashion certainly stung, but lessening the pain was a signing class last month that took a back seat to nobody nationally.
On Tuesday, the Bulldogs will begin their third spring under Smart, and they will do so with a plethora of talented young players but with a sizable leadership void created by the departures of Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Roquan Smith and Isaiah Wynn.
Here are five storylines to follow during spring practices in the weeks ahead:
The F&F show
With former starting quarterback Jacob Eason having transferred to Washington since the end of last season, the competition to guide this year's offense will be between Jake Fromm and Justin Fields.
Fromm replaced an injured Eason in last season's opener against Appalachian State and never surrendered the reins while becoming one of the nation's top 10 quarterbacks in efficiency. Fields is an early enrollee, like Fromm a year ago, and was rated the nation's top dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 class.
"Jake Fromm understands that just like when we went out to sign him to compete and find playing time, we're doing the same thing with Justin Fields," Smart told the SEC Network last month. "These two young men are fierce competitors, and I am so excited about how much better they're going to make each other. As we've improved each recruiting class, the competition on the field has been fierce, and that drives each guy to get better."
Strength up front
Andrew Thomas, who started all 15 games at right tackle as a freshman last season, will get the first crack at replacing Wynn at left tackle. Wynn is Georgia's only departure from the starting offensive line in the championship game, with center Lamont Gaillard and guards Kendall Baker and Ben Cleveland joining Thomas to give the Bulldogs a formidable front.facebook
Yet no spot may be safe given the talent third-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman is compiling.
Isaiah Wilson, a five-star tackle in the 2017 signing class, redshirted last season along with Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer, and the touted trio of Warren Ericson, Trey Hill and Cade Mays are early enrollees from this year's class.
"Sam Pittman has been phenomenal," Smart said. "He does a great job of building relationships."
The Bulldogs have been quite stable at outside linebacker recently, with Bellamy and Carter starting in the 2016 and 2017 seasons and Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins starting the two years before that.
Senior D'Andre Walker is the veteran now and is coming off a solid junior season in which he tallied 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
The first-team spot opposite Walker could go to Walter Grant, who tallied nine tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss last season as a freshman. Help is certainly on the way with the signings earlier this year of Adam Anderson, Brenton Cox and Azeez Ojulari. Cox enrolled in January.
Georgia is losing some familiar faces in its defensive backfield but has its share of returning experience.
Aaron Davis, Malkom Parrish and Dominick Sanders have moved on, but Deandre Baker, Richard LeCounte III, Tyrique McGhee and J.R. Reed head the list of those returning. Reed, a transfer from Tulsa, amassed 79 tackles and two interceptions in his first season in the SEC, while Baker was Georgia's top draft-eligible player who elected to return.
This could be a big spring for LeCounte, who received considerable playing time last season and could be Georgia's best defensive back a year from now.
This may be the most intriguing aspect to Georgia's spring outside of the dueling quarterbacks, given that it seemed like Bellamy, Carter, Chubb and Michel signed during the Ray Goff era. Fromm and senior receiver Terry Godwin easily could assume leadership roles on offense, but who will take charge on defense?
Middle linebacker is commonly the spot from which such leadership occurs, but Smith and Reggie Carter are no longer around, while Natrez Patrick still has to prove he can overcome off-the-field setbacks.
"If we have that kind of leadership, the sky is the limit," Smart said of his outgoing seniors after the loss to Alabama. "I just hope the younger classes don't take it for granted that it's just going to happen. You've got to make it happen, and they've got to believe that."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.