Kirby Smart capped his debut season at Georgia with a smile.
There were too many frowns for the coach along the way.A strong running game led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in Georgia's 31-23 Liberty Bowl win over TCU on Friday gave Smart more reason to celebrate the decisions by the junior running backs to return in 2017.
Georgia's offense should be bolstered by the experience gained by freshman quarterback Jacob Eason for the Bulldogs (8-5) this season, but the Bulldogs showed in their bowl win they are at their best when leaning on the running game.
Chubb rushed for 142 yards and a touchdown. Michel added 87 yards rushing with a touchdown. Michel also scored on a 33-yard catch.
Georgia trailed TCU 16-14 and had only 49 yards rushing at halftime. The Bulldogs finished with 248 yards on the ground.
Chubb and Michel will enter 2017 as one of the nation's top tandems at running back. That gives Smart reason to hope for improvement from a disappointing season that included home losses to Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Georgia Tech.
"They're committed to the University of Georgia by saying I'm going to come back, get my degree, finish this thing right," Smart said. "They care about Georgia. They care about their career too, but they care about Georgia."
Chubb and Michel will headline a strong senior class in 2017 that will raise expectations for an improvement from Georgia's 4-4 finish in Southeastern Conference games.
"I think the buy-in is there because they believe," Smart said of the returning players. They've seen it work."
Smart, the former longtime defensive coordinator at Alabama, was hired as Mark Richt's replacement to make Georgia a championship contender. The Bulldogs fell far short of that goal.
"It certainly helps that 8-5 is better than 7-6, but neither one is where we want to be and we know that and we acknowledge that," Smart said. "We know we got to have to have a better offseason. ... A large portion of our team is coming back."
Linebacker Lorenzo Carter said the bowl win provides momentum for 2017.
"It was a chance for a new beginning, a time for us to go out there and compete and get a chance to start the next season off right," Carter said.
"I just feel like we are rolling into next year with momentum now. Finishing off with a win just make it a little exclamation point."
Georgia will lose one of its most dynamic playmakers. Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie said after the game he will bypass his senior season to enter the NFL draft. McKenzie had four catches for 103 yards, including a 77-yarder. McKenzie led the Bulldogs with 44 catches for 633 yards and seven touchdowns.
Smart also must replace three starting offensive linemen, but defensive back Maurice Smith was the only starter on defense to complete his eligibility.
Defensive tackle Trenton Thompson is a rising star on defense. Thompson was named the bowl's MVP after he tied a Georgia bowl record with three sacks.
Smart said Chubb, who returned from a serious knee injury that ended his 2015 season, is making plans to lead the team in the offseason.
"One of the things that Nick said is 'I'm coming back because I didn't get to really lead in the offseason like I wanted to because he was over there doing rehab,'" Smart said. "He wants to affect the other players on the team. I know Sony and Trenton are the same way."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
This article was written by Charles Odum from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.