ATHENS — Kirby Smart has a loaded Georgia football roster entering his seventh season, yet another team capable of winning a championships if things fall just right.

The Bulldogs were a play away in 2017, losing 26-23 in overtime to Alabama, and a quarter away from a CFP appearance in 2018, blowing a two-touchdown lead in a 35-28 loss to the Tide in the SEC title game.

Finally, Georgia put it all together last season, bouncing back from a 41-24 loss in the SEC Championship Game to beat Alabama 33-18 on the strength of a defense that held Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young to just one touchdown, and then scored one of its own to ice the game.

Many of the key pieces from that CFP Championship Game victory are back, and they rank among the most irreplaceable players on the team.

To be clear, the most irreplaceable players ranking is not the same as the “best” or “most deserving.”

Instead, it’s geared toward Georgia can ill-afford to lose because of the depth or unique ability they offer at their respective position.

No. 1 Christopher Smith

By now everyone knows Smith’s story, how he has bulked up into an NFL prospect after being unexpectedly forced into action in 2020 after Richard LeCounte’s motorcycle crash.

Smith has worked to create his own legend, delivering the historic Pick 6 in the 10-3 season-opening win over Clemson that launched the championship season, which he helped seal by picking off DJ Uiagalelei with the game in the balance.

Smith is a great leader and representative of the program on and off the field, and the secondary will be counting on him.

No. 2 Brock Bowers

Bowers’ deceptive athleticism and football savvy is no less than amazing, as his ability to get open and catch radius make him a reliable target.

Bowers is responsible for a great deal of hidden yardage with his strong runs after the catch, and his football IQ allows for Todd Monken to move him all over the field to create matchups.

Georgia has a deep tight ends room, but Bowers’ skills and experience in this offense make him irreplaceable. The Bulldogs would not have won the 2021 national title without Brock Bowers.

3. Jalen Carter

Carter delivered the biggest play in the CFP Championship Game when he blocked a field goal attempt that could have enabled Alabama to extend its lead to 12-6 with 3:18 left in the third quarter.

Instead, Carter’s block changed the momentum, and the very next play James Cook burst 67 yards to set up the TD the gave Georgia its first lead of the game.

Carter is a one-man wrecking machine in the middle of the line of scrimmage. Georgia needs him to grow into the best team leader he can be to maximize its 2022 season.

4. Kenny McIntosh

McIntosh has proven clutch in big moments, catching three passes on the game-winning drive against Cincinnati, and making a juggling catch and 6-yard run in the CFP title game to extend two scoring drives.

McIntosh is the most experienced and versatile of the backs entering this season and has drawn great praise from Dell McGee and Kirby Smart for his leadership and work ethic.

Georgia has other talented backs, Kendall Milton and Daijun Edwards both proven in their own right, but McIntosh’s dual-threat ability as runner and pass catcher makes him unique. Alas, he also passed for a TD in the Orange Bowl.

5. Adonai Mitchell

The “X” receiver is considered a primary target in most offenses, and Mitchell plays that role with his speed and abilities to get off the line of scrimmage and adjust to the ball in flight.

Mitchell’s 40-yard catch in the fourth quarter of the CFP game was the stuff of legends, as he leaped high to pull in Stetson Bennett’s deep ball and give UGA the lead for good.

Georgia has other talented receivers, to be sure, but none that can be counted on to be as explosive and acrobatic when needed on those “shot” plays as Mitchell. This could be a breakout season for Mitchell.

6. Stetson Bennett

Kirby Smart says this is the best quarterback room he’s ever had at Georgia, but make no mistake about it, UGA has pushed all the chips in on Bennett this season.

Bennett proved resilient last season, overcoming a nightmarish SEC title game by responding with a strong Orange Bowl and clutch 4-of-4 passing (2 TDs) fourth quarter of the CFP title game

Bennett’s value is increased by the fact that his backups, Carson Beck ( 5 appearances, 5 career pass attempts) and Brock Vandagriff, 2 appearances, 1 attempt) have virtually no real game experience.

The Next Six Picks

Jack Podlesny is reliable in the clutch, 5 of 6 on his postseason field goals last season, including a 49-yard in the CFP title game.

Kelee Ringo is dynamic, one of the most athletic and fastest corners in the nation as his 79-yard Pick 6 showed.

Nolan Smith has great potential, the former No. 1 recruit showed up in the clutch with a team-high 2 TFLs in the CFP title game along with 7 tackles and a sack from outside linebacker.

Jamon Dumas-Johnson has earned a key leadership position at middle linebacker, as instinctive as he is physical and tough.

Broderick Jones brings peace of mind to the QB with tremendous feet and pass-blocking skills at left tackle, and the more physical version has All-American upside.

Sedrick Van Pran starts every play right with his consistency on the snap from center, and his leadership and professional presence sets the bar for linemates.

SEC POWER RANKING: A quick take on each SEC team entering 2022