Curtis Compton/AJC
Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Davin Bellamy (left to right) forever will be known as the four Georgia players who spurned the NFL draft and didn't come to regret it.

What if Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy had left Georgia early?

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Imagine if the big four ― Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter, and Davin Bellamy ― had not chosen to return for the 2017 season….
– What would the 2017 Season have been? Record?
– How different would recruiting have gone this past cycle?
– What’s the outlook for 2018 with so much more playing experience for those replacing the big four?
― Alan Culpepper

Now this is a great one for the annals of “what might have been,” which fortunately for Georgia football and those four players we’ll never know.

Minus those four, Georgia still wins the SEC East but doesn’t beat Notre Dame, doesn’t win the SEC Championship Game and thus doesn’t play in the Rose Bowl or National Championship Game. Georgia was so much better than most everybody it faced in the regular season, and with Roquan Smith and a bunch of other talented players, it still would have won 10 games in the regular season.

But Bellamy and Carter’s pass-rush skills were the final difference at Notre Dame, and Bellamy also made the sack-strip that turned the SEC Championship Game to the Bulldogs.

Those four players also were a big part of the veteran leadership that guided the team this season. Would D’Andre Swift, Brian Herrien and Elijah Holyfield have equaled the production of Chubb, Michel and Swift? My guess is no, at least not to the level that lifted Georgia’s offense in 2017, and also helped take the pressure off Jake Fromm and the passing game.

Would D’Andre Walker and Walter Grant have equaled the production of Carter and Bellamy? I tend to doubt it, though Georgia’s defense still probably would have been very good. Still, like the two senior tailbacks, there was a value that Carter and Bellamy brought to the locker room that would have been hard to replicate.

It’s hard for me to answer your second question, Alan, on whether recruiting would have been different. My suspicion is it wouldn’t have been drastically changed; Georgia’s strategy is to load up and figure it out later. Hence, they still would have gone after Justin Fields even with Jake Fromm and Jacob Eason already on campus, and so on.

Your third question, however, is easier to project.

Swift would have the experience of being a starter, but that’s not a huge difference given how much he played as a freshman. What would have been illuminating is Herrien and Holyfield in bigger roles. Would one or both have had big years, and thus entered 2018 further ahead of the highly touted freshmen, Zamir White and James Cook?

And at outside linebacker, the big questions for 2018 concern how Walker will do in a full-time role, and how good Grant can be. We’d already know that by now if Carter and Bellamy hadn’t returned, but I suspect all Georgia fans are glad to discover those answers a year later.

For the record, all four players made the right decision to come back, based on what we can see now. We’ll never know whether any of the four would have raised their stock during the pre-draft process in 2017, but we know they raised it during the 2017 college football season, especially Michel, who could be a first-round pick.

All four also will go down in Georgia history for their playing careers now, and that’s important too. Even if they never play a down of pro football, whenever they’re introduced at a Georgia game, there always will be a different level of applause than had their Georgia careers had ended a year earlier.

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