Why Georgia is the SEC's mystery team in 2017

Kirby Smart, right, welcomes back Nick Chubb and a host of starters in his second year at Georgia. Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

Here's the thing:

We think Georgia should be really good this year. Maybe not really good, but SEC East champion good.

Soon, a large contingent of media will likely pick the Bulldogs, who return 10 starters from a pretty solid defense and have a young superstar in the making at quarterback, to win an SEC East that's still a mess.

You have the Nick Saban clone in Kirby Smart entering his second year as head coach after signing the nation's No. 3 recruiting class.

Honestly, we (that's media and your average consumer of college football) keep wanting to believe that when Georgia should win the division it should, well, win the division.

So 2017 leaves us with a red-and-back conundrum. Are we ready to confidently anoint Georgia as the SEC East favorites?

"It's really hard to quantify where you are now compared to [last season]," Smart said. "I do think from a standpoint of our system we're in a much better place. ... But when it comes to wins and losses or quantifying this guy to that guy, it's really hard to judge until you go out on that field and you have practices, and you see where they are right now as opposed to where they were against TCU [ in the bowl game]."

The truth is we really don't know and we won't know for months. Those 10 returning defensive starters to a unit that ranked in the top five of the SEC in scoring, rushing, passing and total defense sounds so enticing. That the sensational running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel returned to help uber-talented quarterback Jacob Eason kind of makes us want to pencil Georgia into Atlanta ... twice.

But we have to show some restraint and patience.

"I think Georgia is the enigma in the East," an SEC head coach told ESPN. "If they can play to the strength of their defense and get out of their own way offensively, they can do what Florida's done the last two years, which is let the defense be dominant and let the offense do enough until they can hit their stride to win games. It's been a formula that's worked for a couple of teams in this conference over the last couple of years."

Surely, Georgia can do better than that with a backfield that sports Chubb, Michel and Eason.

"Being a year removed from ACL surgery is going to make Chubb a better player," and SEC assistant coach said. "Your quarterback is going to have a year under his belt, so he's going to have the ability to do a few more things, and then as a group, this is the second go-round in that system so there might be a little bit cleaner execution on some things."

Surely, Georgia's defense can follow Florida's path.

"They're going to be a much more experienced football team that can probably go a little deeper into their [defensive] playbook than they did a year ago," an SEC head coach said.

It sounds like this perfect storm is swirling in Georgia's favor, but proceed with caution with the offense. The offensive line is still the same mix-and-match unit it was last year and has at least three openings. If five-star Isaiah Wilson can't take one of the tackle spots, this line could again be in flux.

Eason has all the arm talent to be a special player, but his decision-making skills are suspect, as he struggled reading defenses and throwing against pressure. Eason completed just 26.9 percent of his passes (14-of-52) last year when he was under duress. He threw just one touchdown and three interceptions, fumbled three times and was sacked 21 times when under duress. Nine times he completed less than 40 percent of his passes under duress in a game, including going 0-for-8 in the loss to Ole Miss.

Eason also doesn't have the advantage of having a true, go-to receiver who can consistently stretch the field right now. Until someone can do precisely that, Eason will continue to be limited in what he can do.

"You always have to have receivers who can take the top off a defense," an SEC assistant said. "What that's going to do is force him to make more accurate throws because you're going to get tighter coverage because people aren't as worried about the vertical threats."

Defensively, Smart is going to let members of his stacked 2017 defensive recruiting class battle for all 11 spots -- 10 starters beware! He's hoping top defensive lineman Trenton Thompson returns after withdrawing from spring classes to deal with a "significant" medical issue. Pass-rusher Lorenzo Carter must return to his near-elite freshman form after somewhat ho-hum sophomore and junior seasons.

But Smart might be the biggest X factor. He's a year wiser and is more comfortable with his coaches, his team and himself. He's gone through the growing process and he's learned from early mistakes.

The second-year hiccups will come, but Smart's own development is essential to figuring out who Georgia is.

"He's been through all that," an SEC head coach said. "Now that he knows what a year of being a head coach in the SEC is about, he can manage that a little better."