The biggest reason behind the growing optimism for 2016 among excitable Georgia fans never set on the field during Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl game against Penn State.

A vastly improved Nick Chubb was seen walking along the sidelines during the Bulldogs’ 24-17 victory without the use of crutches or any noticeable limp. It was perhaps the closest thing to healthy the injured tailback had appeared in public since suffering a season-ending knee injury at Tennessee on Oct. 3.

Chubb tore the posterior cruciate and two other ligaments in his left knee that required surgery to correct, but team doctors were quick to say they expected a complete recovery. But the obvious progress Chubb is making is sure to have come as welcome news to new coach Kirby Smart and anxious Dawgs fans eager to avoid a repeat of the offensive meltdown that characterized the rest of the season following the All-SEC running back’s injury.

A healthy Chubb’s return to the lineup, the addition of prized quarterback recruit Jacob Eason and the maturation of former five-star recruit Terry Godwin could make the Dawgs a force within the SEC and nationally next season.

Even with a new coach.

Chubb, who had already chewed up 756 yards and seven touchdowns in just a few plays into his sixth game of the year at the time of his injury, was a freshman the year before when he tore through the league to the tune of 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns to earn first-team all-conference honors. He was a leading Heisman Trophy candidate at the time he was hurt.

His strong legs were the engines that powered the Georgia play-action passing game and the offense as a whole. Without Chubb, more was asked of quarterback Greyson Lambert than the Virginia graduate transfer was capable of handling.

That shouldn’t be the case if Chubb is back to form next fall, but he will have more than a capable backup in versatile rising junior Sony Michel, who finished the season with 1,161 yards and eight scores in Chubb’s absence. Michel added 26 catches for 270 yards and three more scores to almost single-handedly shoulder the offensive load in Chubb’s absence. Incoming freshman Elijah Holyfield, the son of former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, could also contribute.

With Chubb and Michel in the fold next season, the Bulldogs offense should be in capable hands whether it’s Lambert at quarterback or the much-ballyhooed Eason, who has enrolled in school early and plans to take part in spring practice.

It remains to be seen whether Eason picks things up fast enough to be the starter by Opening Day, but it’s obvious that he will be the guy under center sometime very soon into the season. He’ll have to learn on the job quickly if the Bulldogs hope to reach the lofty heights of which they believe they’re capable.

Whoever is quarterback will be sure to look for Godwin, who delivered a tour-de-force performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl by throwing for one touchdown and catching another to earn MVP honors and serve notice that he will the Dawgs’ top playmaker of the future.

Georgia’s defense ranked as one of the nation’s best in 2015, and figures to again be exceptional next season with the bulk of their key players returning. Pass-rushing outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are headed to the NFL, but look for big years from rising junior Lorenzo Carter and senior-to-be Tim Kimbrough.

An incoming recruiting class that is currently ranked 15th nationally by could improve still by National Signing Day on Feb. 3 to only add to the already-rich cupboards in Athens.

Optimism always abounds in the spring, but with good reason at Georgia this year.