Georgia’s first season with Kirby Smart at the helm wasn’t the type of year many had hoped for, but it was probably what they should have expected.

The Bulldogs had some exciting and promising moments, but they struggled with consistency and the finer points of in-game management. With a full season in the rear-view, Georgia should have ironed out several of those issues, and there are tangible reasons to be excited for the future.

It’s still too early in Smart’s tenure to declare the Bulldogs a Playoff contender, but they are very much in the SEC East race and could be considered the favorite.

If everything goes according to plan, Georgia should be returning to Atlanta for the first time since its heartbreaking loss to Alabama in 2012.

Here are five reasons Georgia can win the SEC East this season.

No. 1: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel’s return

Not to downplay Georgia’s remarkable recruiting class, but the greatest recruiting effort in the Bulldogs’ favor may have actually come from Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ on-field celebration in Sanford Stadium, after an improbable comeback against the Bulldogs, played a factor in Nick Chubb’s decision to return for his senior season.

Chubb, who is second on Georgia’s career rushing list with 3,424 yards, is one of the best running backs in the country when healthy, which he should be now that he is far removed from his devastating knee injury. He will be joined in the backfield by Sony Michel, whose 2,386 career rushing yards rank 10th in school history.

Their return not only gives Georgia one of the best one-two punches in college football, but it means that two hard-working veterans will be on hand to guide a talented class of incoming freshmen.

No. 2: Defensive depth and talent

If the Bulldogs’ offense makes some strides this offseason, the talent is in place for it to become one of the best offenses in the SEC. Georgia’s defense, however, may already be in that conversation.

Entering the fall, Georgia won’t get the same recognition as Alabama, Auburn or LSU, but the Bulldogs have built a versatile and effective defense. Should he return for the fall, Trenton Thompson is already a star at defensive tackle with more room for improvement. Georgia’s linebacker corps is one of the deepest and most talented in the conference, and the secondary should benefit from the depth provided by an elite recruiting class.

A lot of eyes will be on Jacob Eason and the offense in 2017, but it’s the defense that will likely win Georgia a few ball games early in the season.

No. 3: Jacob Eason’s progression

Very few freshmen have been under the microscope at Georgia the way Eason was last season. The former 5-star recruit clearly has all of the physical tools, but he struggled at times.

With a full offseason to work with Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, Eason should be better at dissecting defenses, executing different types of throws and leading the offense. Instead of relying on his incredible arm strength to bail him out of situations, Eason should now be utilizing his full skill set to take advantage of opposing defenses. That will be a sign that Georgia’s quarterback is on the right track.

Eason will get good competition this spring from incoming freshman Jake Fromm. An accomplished quarterback prospect in his own right, Fromm threw for nearly 13,000 yards and 116 touchdowns in his high school career. This competition should push Eason to improve, as Fromm could very well be the top quarterback at a lot of schools.

No. 4: Smart and his staff are in Year 2

It’s easy to forget that, although he learned from the very best in the game, Smart was in unfamiliar territory on several occasions in 2016.

Like any person in a new role, there are sure to be growing pains. This fall, Smart and his staff will need to prove that they learned from their mistakes and grew alongside their young team. At times in his first season, Smart appeared frustrated that his team wasn’t yet meeting the standards he put in place. Part of that can be attributed to a young team and talent that didn’t perfectly match the scheme, but a good coach should minimize the negatives and enhance the positives.

Smart’s prowess on the recruiting trail is already above reproach, but this season will reveal a lot about his ability as a head coach. If Smart improves, Georgia should reach double-digit wins.

No. 5: The East is up for grabs (again)

While Alabama has cast a shadow over the SEC West for the past decade, there has been no such imperial rule in the East. Tennessee appears to be on the rebuild again after a slew of talented veterans departed, and Florida has yet to find a quarterback while its defense continues to lose key pieces.

From a distance, Georgia looks like the team on the rise in the division. Although Florida has captured the title over the past two years, it somehow feels like the Gators are regressing, or, at the very least, treading water. In fact, South Carolina could ultimately prove to be the Bulldogs’ biggest competition.

No team in the East is good enough to be deemed the outright favorite entering this season, but Georgia appears to be the closest. If the Bulldogs can make the necessary improvements during the spring and summer, they should be headed to Atlanta at the end of fall.

William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden