Georgia ended its season with a 31-23 Liberty Bowl victory over a middling TCU squad, which is a nice way to build momentum heading into next year.

There are plenty of question marks surrounding the program, but things may appear a little hazier than reality might indicate. Despite the worries many fans might have, there are also reasons for optimism heading into 2017.

Things aren’t always as bad as they seem, and this might be the case for Georgia. Here are seven reasons fans should be optimistic as we turn the page and enter a new year.

1. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are back: The biggest news of the offseason thus far for Georgia is the announcement that Chubb and Michel will return for their senior seasons. Their presence will be vitally important for an offense that is still trying to build an identity.

As we saw in Georgia’s bowl victory over TCU, the offense is at its best when Chubb and Michel are heavily involved. While Jacob Eason continues to mature, the duo will act as an excellent security blanket and help keep defenses honest.

Chubb became the second-leading rusher in school history during the Liberty Bowl, and he now has 3,424 yards in his college career. Michel has 2,386 yards to his name, 10th in school history. It certainly helps to have those two back in the fold.

2. Young defense showed improvement: Perhaps the biggest improvement throughout the season came on the defensive side of the ball. The front seven was expected to be an area of concern with new starters across the board, but it ended up becoming a strength by season’s end.

Trenton Thompson, Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick appear to be stars in the making. Thompson racked up three sacks in the bowl game, and Smith led the team with 13 tackles. With Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy also coming back, the Bulldogs should return every key piece in the front seven.

Dec 30, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Georgia Bulldogs defensive tackle Trenton Thompson (78) sacks TCU Horned Frogs quarterback Kenny Hill (7) during the second half at Liberty Bowl. Georgia Bulldogs defeated the TCU Horned Frogs 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary began the year as a problem for Georgia, but slowly began to gel. That too should remain relatively intact, and there are several pieces that could be added to the mix for next season.

3. Recruiting in key areas of need: Georgia’s weaknesses this season were fairly obvious. In need of a major upgrade were the offensive line, wide receivers and the secondary (assuming special teams can be fixed in-house). Fortunately, Kirby Smart is one of the best recruiters in the SEC.

Georgia currently has the No. 3 recruiting class, according to the’s composite rankings. The contents of the class should have Bulldogs fans excited. Currently committed to the program are six offensive linemen, four wide receivers and two defensive backs, including the nation’s No. 2 safety. We learned that Smart isn’t afraid to play youth, and all of these recruits will be given the chance to compete right away.

4. Eason’s familiarity with the system: During the Liberty Bowl, there was a common issue for Eason. Although he struggled with accuracy a great deal, a major problem was his timing on the routes. There were several occasions in which Eason held on to the ball two or three seconds too long, which then led to an incomplete pass.

Instead of throwing his receivers open, which is the mark of a good quarterback, Eason waited until he saw that his receiver was open. This points to a lack of understanding in where exactly his receiver should be and when, and a gap in Eason’s trust that his receiver will be there. All of this should be corrected as Eason gains more familiarity with Jim Chaney’s scheme and has more time to work with his receivers.

5. Legitimate SEC stars emerging: While there were some obvious holes on the Bulldogs’ roster in 2016, there were also some tremendous surprises. Next year, there will be players with All-SEC talent at several spots.

We already know about Chubb and Michel, but Thompson and Smith could be among the SEC’s best in their junior seasons. Add to that mix players like Isaac Nauta, Riley Ridley and Deandre Baker, and the Bulldogs will have some nice playmakers on the field.

6. Improvement on the sideline: Just like his team, Smart had a few hiccups along the way in his first season as a head coach. Experience is the best teacher, even for a coach who learned under Nick Saban, and Smart gained plenty of it this year.

He will now have the opportunity to evaluate his program in the offseason and learn from the mistakes he made during games. Just as players can grow from one year to the next, so can a coach. Nobody wants the Bulldogs to succeed more than Smart, and he’s going to do what he can to make sure he puts them in the best position to do so.

7. Schedule and SEC East competition: Based on the returning talent, Georgia should have just as much of an opportunity to win the SEC East next season as anyone. Tennessee is losing a lot of experience on both sides of the ball, and Florida’s defense will also be losing some key pieces. It may seem weird to say, but Kentucky could also be a team to watch next season in the division.

The Bulldogs’ schedule is relatively favorable as well. The notable additions to the schedule are Notre Dame and Mississippi State, which went a combined 10-15 this season. Things are setting up nicely for Georgia in 2017, but the team has to show it can take advantage.

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