The Georgia Bulldogs enter spring practice having been knocking at the door under coach Kirby Smart in each of the past two seasons. And each time, Alabama has been the one to turn them away.
First, it was in overtime of the College Football Playoff National Championship. Then it was last season's SEC championship game. Each time, Georgia squandered leads.
So, yes, there might be a mental hurdle left for this program to clear, but there's nothing in the way of a talent gap. Despite significant changes to the roster and the coaching staff, the Bulldogs are expected to be right back in title contention next season.
2018 record: 11-3
Spring practice start date: TBD
Spring game date: April 20
Biggest offseason position battle: Pass-catchers. It was bad enough that the always reliable Terry Godwin was graduating. Then the NFL draft deadline arrived and claimed Jake Fromm's top three targets: wideouts Riley Ridley and Mecole Hardman; and tight end Isaac Nauta. That leaves running back D'Andre Swift and receivers Jeremiah Holloman and Charlie Woerner as the only returning players with double-digit receptions last season. The good news is a pair of graduate transfers are on the way: former Tennessee tight end Eli Wolf and former Miami receiver Lawrence Cager, who led the Hurricanes with six touchdown catches last season.
Strength heading into spring: It's not going to be easy to replace All-SEC center Lamont Gaillard, who started every game over the past three seasons. But on the whole, Georgia's offensive line appears to be in pretty good shape. Left tackle Andrew Thomas, who was named first team All-SEC last season and who is likely to be on a few preseason All-America lists, will be the anchor of the unit, which also returns right tackle Isaiah Wilson. The two guard spots might be up for grabs, but there's plenty of experience to pull from in Ben Cleveland, Cade Mays and Solomon Kindley.
Question mark heading into spring: This is going to be a new-look Georgia defense, that much is clear. Defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter and Jay Hayes are gone. So are cornerback Deandre Baker and linebackers D'Andre Walker and Juwan Taylor. So is coordinator Mel Tucker, for that matter. While there are some nice pieces at safety (J.R. Reed, Richard LeCounte) and linebacker (Monty Rice, Tae Crowder), there's a lot of work to be done to sort out a starting 11.
Instant impact addition: Did we mention Georgia needs some help on defense? Well, look no further than freshman Nolan Smith to provide assistance. With so much movement at outside linebacker and defensive end, the five-star prospect (No. 2 in the ESPN 300) could find himself in position to play right away. He has the size at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds to play either position. And with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash, he certainly has the speed to wreak havoc as a pass-rusher.
2019 game to get excited about now: If you're a fan of college football, you have to love quality nonconference games that aren't crammed into the first couple of weeks of the season. Well, Sept. 21 -- also known as Week 4 -- is just for you. Not only will you get a head-to-head battle of potential top-five teams in Georgia and Notre Dame, you'll also get to see them play on campus in Athens, rather than stuck on a neutral site like so many of these types of games. The last time these two teams met, it was a thriller in South Bend, Indiana, that the Bulldogs won on a late field goal.
Spring storyline to watch: Coaching turnover isn't easy. Smart can ask his former boss, Nick Saban, all about that. Alabama had to make a change at both coordinator positions last season, and it appeared to catch up with the Crimson Tide in the national title game. Now, it is Georgia's turn, with Tucker leaving to become the head coach at Colorado and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney leaving for the same position at Tennessee. There will be some measure of continuity with James Coley getting the promotion from quarterbacks coach to OC, and Smart expected to promote from within on the defensive side of the ball, as well. But adjusting to new roles and more responsibility isn't easy, and it's a situation worth keeping an eye on.