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Davin Bellamy (17) and Lorenzo Carter (7) of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrate after a 20-19 win against Notre Dame on Sept. 9.

If ever there was a UGA senior class to honor, this 2017 bunch is it

ATHENS, Ga. – One million, eight hundred and sixty thousand.

Dollars.

At the very least, that is how much The Big Four left on the table to play for the Georgia Bulldogs this season. Probably would’ve been more.

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The return of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb boosts the confidence of many UGA fans. (Cal Powell / UGA)

As far as I know, nobody ever has referred to Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as The Big Four. But how can you not? That is what they’ve been for Georgia this season.

I’m not talking about statistical contributions, necessarily. Yes, they’ve all contributed significantly to the Bulldogs with what they bring to the team on the field each Saturday. But the Big Four has had a more intangible effect on this 2017 squad.

It started with them walking away from that pile of money last December.

“Those four guys [coming back], it just shows their commitment,” said fellow senior Jeb Blazevich, a tight end. “I think that really set the tone for the rest of the team. It said, ‘Hey, we’re investing another whole year into this.’… Even the younger guys are thinking, ‘This season is special.’”

And it has been special. Still is, despite that aberration that occurred last weekend at Auburn. With a win Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats (7-3, 4-3 SEC), the No. 7-ranked Bulldogs can improve to 10-1 on the season and finish the year undefeated at home. They’ve already punched their ticket to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game.

With that in hand, all other possibilities remain in play. That’s right ― the College Football Playoff and a national championship. Scoff if you like, but that remains these seniors’ objective.

“We made a decision; we came back for a reason,” Carter said after the Bulldogs’ practice on Wednesday. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far. But all of us seniors – even the underclassmen – we let them know we’re not done yet.”

We never got an exact assessment of what The Big Four were told by the NFL when they asked for a draft evaluation after last season. It’s a very formalized and private process these days.

Essentially, underclassmen can inform the NFL’s college advisory committee that they’re considering forgoing their college eligibility to play professionally. Made up of high-level NFL personnel evaluators and individuals from scouting organizations, the advisory committee then reviews data and video provided by the players and their schools and offers a generalized assessment. They receive either a “first- or second-round” evaluation or a “stay in school” evaluation.

The NFL maintains that anything beyond those first two rounds is not worth bolting on a degree. Not everybody accepts their assessment, however. In 2016, 107 underclassmen entered the draft. Of those, 30 of them went undrafted, according to the NFL. Some others made out OK. Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie, for instance, was drafted in the fifth round as an underclassman and made the Denver Broncos’ roster. He signed a four-year contract that will pay him $2.64 million.

Without the benefit of these guys telling us the exact evaluation they received, there’s no way to know how much money The Big Four left on the table. But based on where I’m sitting, it’s at least the number I mentioned above.

That’s based on my personal view that each one of these players would have made an NFL roster, regardless of his draft position. The NFL minimum salary for 2017 is $465,000. Multiply that by four and you get $1.86 million.

I don’t know what The Big Four’s presence has meant financially for UGA. I guess you could say without them, the Bulldogs probably aren’t eyeing a New Year’s Six bowl game and certainly not an SEC Championship Game or playoff berth. All those come with their resident monetary rewards.

Intangibly, though, it’s hard to put a number on their impact.

“That’s a group of guys that have been really special to me,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who advised The Big Four to come back. “But they’ve been really special to the DawgNation and the legacy they leave behind.”

Of course, it’s not just The Big Four who have made the Bulldogs into what they are this season. In fact, there are a bunch of seniors who have contributed to the cause. That goes beyond those who receive full-ride, grants-in-aid.

Including walk-ons, there are 31 seniors who will honored during senior day ceremonies before the game Saturday. Not all of them have been here the last four years, but most of them have. Guys such as safety Dominick Sanders, who needs one pick to tie the school record for career interceptions; like Aaron Davis, who has started 41 games, most ever by a non-kicker walk-on; or tackle Isaiah Wynn, who has played in all but two games the last four years, most of them as a starter. Including a year at prep school, John-John Atkins has been pledged to Georgia since 2012. Likewise, he has been a block of granite for the Bulldogs at nose guard.

Together, the seniors have amassed a 37-12 record (.755). A couple of more wins and they’ll finish among Georgia’s top 10-winningest classes of all time in a program that spans 125 years.

As for the money, Carter has maintained that it really wasn’t about that for him or the other seniors who came back.

“We didn’t go out last year like we wanted to,” he has always maintained about the team that finished 8-5. “I feel like I had a lot more to do here so I couldn’t leave yet.”

Nevertheless, Carter might have benefited the most in that regard. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound outside linebacker from Norcross, Ga., has been mentioned as a potential first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Regardless, each of The Big Four has left an indelible mark on this program:

  • Chubb became just the second rusher in Georgia history to exceed 4,000 career yards and will finish second all-time at UGA behind Herschel Walker in rushing yardage, rushing scores (currently 39), and all-purpose yardage (currently 4,669). His 4,318 rushing yards stand as the fourth most in SEC history.
  • Michel is the fifth-leading rusher in Georgia history with 3,142 yards and could finish as high as third. He’s on pace to finish among the top 5 in all-purpose yards (3,755) yards as well. His 7.4 yards per carry average leads the team this year.
  • Bellamy has played in 33 games, collecting 108 tackles and 19½ tackles for loss. He ranks third on the team with 9 quarterback pressures this season.
  • And Carter, he had a team-high 9 tackles and a sack in the 42-7 win over Florida, a couple of huge sacks and fumble recoveries in the win at Notre Dame and 13½ sacks in his career so far. Except for that stinging loss at Auburn last Saturday, senior year has been nothing but a blast for Carter and his classmates.

But it’s not over yet, Carter points out.

That’s why, if you’re going to the game Saturday at Sanford Stadium, you really need to be inside and sitting in your seat by 3 p.m. Kickoff between for Georgia-Kentucky is not until 3:37 p.m., but setting aside an extra half-hour to honor these 2017 seniors rather than gulping down another cold one will be time well spent.

“These guys have meant a lot to this program, meant a lot to me personally, meant a lot to the staff, and they’ve meant a lot to this university,” Smart said. “I think we all owe it to them, as a fan base and as a coaching staff and as a team, to make sure that we give them our best effort.”

You can be assured that Georgia’s seniors will bring it.