HOOVER – Kirby Smart finished his Alabama career as a national champion. Right before the game, he announced he would be leaving the school to pursue his dream of being a head coach.

“It’s an honor and privilege to return home to the University of Georgia and my home state,” Smart said in a story by ESPN from December of 2015. “I also want to thank Coach (Nick) Saban. I have been fortunate to spend 11 seasons with him as my mentor and have learned a tremendous amount from him as a coach and teacher. I’m honored and excited for the opportunity at Georgia and promise high energy, effort every day, and hard work every minute on the part of all our coaches, staff and student-athletes.”

In his first year as head coach, Smart went 8-5 and finished tied for second in the SEC East.

Smart led the University of Alabama’s defense to the best in the conference and the nation, leading the SEC in sacks, interceptions and yards lost off sacks. It was also tied for first in defensive touchdowns.

Smart brought his defensive philosophy to the Bulldogs. The team added eight sacks and three interceptions

The Bulldogs were average in close games in 2016, finishing 3-3 in games decided by three points or less.

Georgia returns most of its starters from last season, only losing five, including its leading rusher, passer, tackler and second leading wide receiver.

“I’m excited about the players we have returning,” Smart said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “However, there aren’t 21 starters that I know about, because of the competition we will have.”

Roquan Smith led the team in tackles finishing with 95 total tackles, ninth-best in the SEC.

“If I had to compare Roquan to anyone it would be CJ Mosley, athletically and the way he can move in space,” Smart said. “But he is a stand-alone player.”

Along with a new head coach the Bulldogs added a new offense. Jim Chaney’s attack was the 10th-best offense in the conference.

Jacob Eason was the seventh-leading passer in the SEC in his freshman season. Now he has a year under his belt and will look to strive under a second year of Chaney’s offense. He threw for 2,430 yards, which is the fourth all-time by a freshman in school history, and 16 touchdowns.

Sony Michel and Nick Chubb both return for their senior seasons. Chubb led the Bulldogs with 1,130 rushing yards. The duo ran for almost 2,000 yards and reached the end zone 12 times on the ground.

Georgia starts its season at home against Appalachian State on Sept. 2.

Head coach: Kirby Smart

2016 record:  8-5 (4-4 SEC)

Returning starters: 21

Toughest question Smart faced: Kirby, you mentioned expectations at the outset. How do you expect your players to handle those expectations as they go up fairly considerably this year?

Smart’s reply: “Our players expect to win. And we don’t want players who don’t expect to win. When you come to the University of Georgia, that’s the man that sits out in front of you. You’re going to be one of the best players in the country, coming from one of the best states in the country, one of the best high school football states in the country. We expect them to come in with that attitude and demeanor. You create that, and it permeates your program by how you carry yourself and perform on the field. And we have not performed on the field from the level we should.”

You need to know: The tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were finally healthy, and the two showed what they could do when healthy. The two combined for 1,970 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kirby Smart finished his first season as a head coach tied for second in the SEC East. The Bulldogs were one of the SEC teams led by a freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason. Eason finished with 2430 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Best player quote: “I don’t think we much different. I think we’re getting to that point if you got close best friend, it gets to that point that you start thinking the same thing sometimes. If I’m thinking a song, he’s thinking of the same song, but I sing it first, he’s like I was just thinking that. That’s when it gets a little bit crazy.” – Senior running back Sony Michel on his friendship with senior running back Nick Chubb.