ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia's journey to the Southeastern Conference championship game — and possibly a shot at the national title — began almost a year ago.
Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy could've gotten an early start on their NFL careers.
Instead, all four decided to return to the Bulldogs for one more season.
How 'bout those Senior Dawgs!
Chubb has become only the second back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards three times. Michel has a shot at a 1,000-yard season. Carter leads the team in sacks and tackles behind the line. Bellamy is also a force when it comes to getting after the quarterback.
Together, they're a huge reason for No. 7 Georgia's success heading into Saturday's regular-season finale against Georgia Tech.
"Usually the best teams in the country, they have seniors," coach Kirby Smart said Monday. "The seniors have been there the most, they make the least mistakes, they have been through it, they're very calm. That's what our group has been — good leaders for this team."
Chubb almost surely would've been in the NFL by now if not for tearing up a knee during his sophomore year, which cut short a potential run at the Heisman Trophy. He returned ahead of schedule to play last season, but wasn't quite the same explosive runner.
After passing on the NFL and another year removed from his devastating injury, he has finally returned to full speed.
"This is something we can always look back on and cherish the moments," Chubb said of his senior season.
He has surely helped his draft prospects by staying for a fourth season. Same for the other three, who are expected to go much higher than they would have coming out as juniors.
"You really shouldn't be leaving after your third year unless you're going to be a first- or maybe a second-round pick," Smart said. "Every year you go into that with that approach and if they understand what's best for them, then they usually handle that the right way. So I'm really proud of these guys that decided to stay, because I think it was the right decision for each one of them individually. That's the most important thing."
The Bulldogs (10-1, 7-1) have clinched a spot in the league championship game for the first time since 2012. They will face either No. 1 Alabama or No. 6 Auburn, with the West Division representative to be decided this weekend at the Iron Bowl.
Carter said he wasn't just thinking about his draft status when he decided to come back for another year.
Carter and the rest of the seniors were irritated about losing two of the last three years to Georgia Tech. They didn't want to leave Athens with a losing record against their state rival.
"That was one of the things we thought about, I thought about personally, something that I needed to do, something I needed to come back and finish," Carter said. "Right now, I have a losing record to Tech. All the seniors do. We just wanted to come back and play our brand of football and finish out strong."
Michel was thinking long term when he made his decision to stick with the Bulldogs.
"I felt like we had so much more to give to this program," he said. "So many boxes that I can check. Coming back wasn't the wrong decision."
Chubb and Michel showed just how devastating they can be as a package deal in last week's 42-13 victory over Kentucky, combining for 238 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
"They're exceptional backs," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "They're real physical, and they keep you off balance. Dynamic playmakers outside. Really strong, and really good."
While their contributions on the field have been invaluable, Smart pointed to what the seniors have done behind the scenes.
"You don't get to see it in the meeting room, you don't get to see it when a guy's late, you don't see it when a guy does some undisciplined penalty out of bounds and they grab the guy," the coach said. "That part is what they bring, of setting a standard, the standard that we want to play to, they help set that standard. The guys that are younger in the room, they will then try to emulate the older guys. And when you have that, you have what you want."
Georgia's success has made it clear that staying in school was the right call.
For all four of them.
"Every day I come to the locker room and get dressed for practice, I just sit back and I'm thankful," Carter said. "Thankful that I have a chance to be with my teammates, be at this program, just be around all the people here.
"I have no regrets coming back."