Looking at the Dawgs’ 2023 season can provide clues to what we can expect in 2024.

And this is the time for looking back and ahead; after all, January is named for the Roman god Janus, who is depicted with two faces — one looking into the past, the other into the future.

So, with a season just completed, the coaches will be looking at what the Dawgs can do to improve.

In 2023, it was obvious that the defense wasn’t at the same level as its two predecessors, who were among the program’s best ever.

Georgia’s 2023 defensive front wasn’t quite up to the level of the two previous seasons. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/Dawgnation)

For instance, a look at how Georgia did against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, compared with how Michigan did in the Rose Bowl, shows one obvious contrast: The Wolverines’ defense, particularly up front, was much more disruptive against the Tide than Georgia’s.

One of the downsides of being a main link in the talent supply chain to the NFL is that each year Georgia has to replace a lot of key players.

Kirby Smart and his defensive coaches face the same challenge moving into 2024, with some of the younger players having hit the transfer portal in search of more immediate playing time (or NIL money), while several stalwarts, including Zion Logue and Tramel Walthour, have moved on.

But there are encouraging signs. Nazir Stackhouse, who became a fan favorite with his interception return against Mizzou this past season and started his 29th consecutive game in the Orange Bowl, announced he will return for a fifth year (awarded due to the pandemic). Other likely starters on the DL are Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins and Warren Brinson (if he returns), and there are a lot of experienced players behind them.

Nazir Stackhouse, who thrilled fans with an interception against Missouri, has decided to return for another year. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Also, the portal works both ways (though Georgia loses many more than it takes). Among the players transferring to UGA is defensive lineman Xzavier McLeod from South Carolina, and the Dawgs also have several defensive linemen among the incoming freshmen.

Same thing goes in the secondary, which generally was stronger than the defensive front in 2023. Javon Bullard, Kamari Lassiter and Tykee Smith all are headed to the NFL, and Nyland Green and AJ Harris entered the portal, but safety Malaki Starks is back, as is cornerback Daylen Everette, and Julian Humphrey and Daniel Harris both ended up staying, after flirting with transferring. Georgia also flipped highly ranked safety prospect K.J. Bolden, who had been committed to FSU.

Georgia will be very young at outside linebacker, but Mykel Williams was moved there for the bowl, and did well. At inside linebacker, Jamon Dumas-Johnson transferred to Kentucky, but there are several returnees, headed up by Smael Mondon and C.J. Allen.

The key will be whether coordinators Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp can develop a more consistent pass rush, while shoring up the run defense, which wasn’t quite up to UGA standards this past season — particularly against double-threat quarterbacks.

Quarterback Carson Beck celebrates with family and friends after Georgia’s 63-3 win over FSU in the Orange Bowl. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

On the other side of the ball, Georgia went through a major transition this past season with a new starting quarterback, Carson Beck, stepping up to replace Stetson Bennett, and a new/old offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, taking the Bulldogs’ offensive reigns again. Both did extremely well (despite Bobo still being many fans’ whipping boy for anything that goes wrong in a game).

Yes, there were some inconsistent performances. At times, the offense couldn’t seem to get out of its own way (with the middle of the game against Bama being a prime example).

However, part of the trouble in developing offensive consistency was a nagging string of injuries that plagued some of the key offensive players all season long.

And, despite that, Georgia’s offense produced, ranking fourth nationally in yards per play, fifth nationally in total yards per game and fifth nationally in scoring offense.

Georgia wide receiver Dillon Bell makes a catch in the Orange Bowl game against Florida State. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Looking ahead, last season’s backup QB, Brock Vandagriff, was among about 20 Dawgs transferring, but the return of both starter Beck and Orange Bowl backup Gunner Stockton is huge, and Georgia also will have incoming freshman Ryan Puglisi. (I still think Smart might pick up an experienced quarterback from the spring portal in April, as he has said in the past that he likes to have four QBs on the roster.)

Elsewhere on the offense, Bobo and his staff must identify playmakers who will step into the breach left by the departure of Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Kendall Milton, Daijun Edwards, Sedrick Van Pran and Amarius Mims.

Oscar Delp isn’t the generational talent that Bowers was at tight end, but he looks to be a reliable option there, with Lawson Luckie his likely tandem, and that position group also includes incoming freshmen Jaden Reddell and Colton Heinrich.

Plus, the versatile Dillon Bell seems capable of taking McConkey’s place in the key yards-after-catch part of the game. Georgia lost some of its depth at receiver to the portal, but Rara Thomas, Dominic Lovett and Arian Smith return, and Anthony Evans looks like a rising star, as both a kick returner and receiver.

Offensive lineman Tate Ratledge, seen during Georgia’s win over Florida, will be back for another season. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Smart and his staff aren’t standing pat when it comes to pass catchers, either, bringing in three transfers who could make a difference: Michael Jackson III from USC, London Humphreys from Vanderbilt and Colbie Young from Miami. (Jackson also has returned kicks.)

Also transferring to Georgia from Florida is veteran running back Trevor Etienne, who’s considered by many to be Georgia’s likely starter, though considerable playing time should go to Roderick Robinson, Cash Jones, Andrew Paul and, hopefully, Branson Robinson, who spent 2023 recovering from an injury. There are some incoming freshman backs, too, though only Chauncey Bowens will go through spring practice.

On the offensive line, which had a generally good year in 2023 (with a few exceptions), three lesser-used players transferred out. But starters Earnest Greene, Tate Ratledge, Xavier Truss and Dylan Fairchild return, and there are quite a few other experienced players in the mix for playing time, including Jared Wilson, Micah Morris and Monroe Freeling.

Overall, though, the most encouraging thing that Bulldog Nation can take from the past season — and hope that it continues in 2024 — is the championship culture Smart has developed in Athens, and the way it was on display in the Orange Bowl.

Head coach Kirby Smart celebrates by throwing oranges to Georgia players after the Orange Bowl win. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Georgia players were just as disappointed as FSU’s about not making the playoff, but instead of whining about it and letting it affect how they approached their bowl game, they remained focused and hungry to show what they could do. None of Georgia’s players opted out of the bowl, even though it wasn’t the game they had expected to be playing in. That says a lot about Smart’s program.

If it hadn’t been for that logjam of undefeated conference champs, Georgia would have had a strong shot at the much-discussed threepeat.

That’s old news, though.

Looking ahead, Smart has excelled again in attracting top talent to UGA, bringing in the nation’s top class of prospects in the early recruiting period.

But Georgia’s head coach isn’t just one of college football’s best recruiters, he’s also an excellent motivator and has built a program where he ingrains into his players that, as he likes to say, “You’re either elite or you’re not.”

He expects Georgia’s players to be elite.

I think the sample size is sufficient at this point — after the most successful three-year span in the program’s history — to conclude that, under Smart, Georgia is among the best programs in the country, and that isn’t likely to change.

Whether that will be enough to make Georgia a national championship contender for a fourth consecutive year will depend on how the Dawgs negotiate a truly brutal schedule in 2024, when they must face both Texas and Alabama on the road. The latter is a particularly egregious move on the part of conference schedulers, considering that the last time the Tide and the Dawgs played a regular season game (in 2020), it also was in Tuscaloosa.

It seems UGA rarely gets its way in SEC scheduling matters. Had the Georgia-Oklahoma game originally scheduled for 2023 not been canceled at the conference’s insistence — and had Georgia won the game — the head-to-head argument still might have prevailed, with the College Football Playoff selection committee opting for a Texas team that beat Bama over a Georgia team that lost to Bama.

But, with wins over Oklahoma, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee on Georgia’s record, I bet the debate in the committee room would have been intense.

The way the postseason has gone, many neutral observers agree with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who told the SEC Network that the conference “had a different view of who belonged in the College Football Playoff. … I think Georgia was one of the four best teams through the season. I still do.”

Likewise, sports handicapper Danny Sheridan said this past week that “UGA, at full strength, would be favored over everyone” in this year’s playoff.

Anyway, back to next season: In addition to games at Bama and Texas, the Dawgs travel to Atlanta to face a Power 5 nonconference opponent in Clemson, and they have trips to Kentucky and Ole Miss.

As for the home schedule, it isn’t quite as lackluster as some recent years. There’ll be visits to Sanford Stadium by Auburn, Tennessee and Georgia Tech on a slate filled out by Tennessee Tech, Mississippi State and Massachusetts.

Still, I’ve heard more than one longtime observer of Georgia football say they think it might be Smart’s greatest achievement yet if he can pull off a fourth consecutive undefeated regular season with that schedule.

Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t bet against him. With the exception the SEC Championship Game against Bama, Smart’s Dawgs were at their best this past season when they played their most highly rated opponents.

Beyond the regular season, with the playoff expanding to 12 teams in 2024, a one-loss SEC runner-up should be included and have the opportunity to play their way into the final championship game.

The oddsmakers already are high on the 2024 Dawgs, establishing them as the favorite to win another national championship, with their odds at 5-to-1, followed by Alabama (11-to-2), Ohio State (7-to-1), Texas (9-to-1) and Michigan (10-to-1).

That would give Georgia natties in 2021, 2022 and 2024. Putting a twist on an old Meat Loaf song, three out of four ain’t bad.