Eleven months after Alabama beat Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, expect to see the same two teams playing in the same venue for another championship. It'll just be for the SEC championship in December rather than the national championship in January.
A repeat of a College Football Playoff showdown between the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs in the 2018 season is unlikely, but they will both enter next season as obvious favorites to win their SEC divisions. That doesn't mean they're guaranteed December trips to Atlanta -- after all, Alabama just won the national title without winning the SEC West -- but a Bulldogs-Crimson Tide SEC championship matchup is sure to be one of the most universally accepted preseason predictions.
With the 2017 season in the books and underclassmen making their NFL decisions, let's take an early look at what to expect from Alabama and Georgia and their chances of returning to the playoff.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Who's gone. Five underclassmen announced that they will leave early for the NFL Draft: WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough, DT Da'Ron Payne and DBs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison. It's a fairly standard number of departures for Alabama -- or any team that wins a national title -- and, in fact, it could have been worse, as leading rusher Damien Harris and DE Isaiah Buggs decided to return for their senior seasons. Beyond the five underclassmen, the Tide will lose one starting offensive lineman in center Bradley Bozeman, plus DE Da'Shawn Hand, LBs Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton and DBs Anthony Averett, Levi Wallace, Hootie Jones and Tony Brown. The defensive backfield is the unit that will be the hardest hit by far, and overall the defense will lose seven of its top 10 tacklers. If that wasn't enough, Nick Saban needs to replace both coordinators: After two seasons, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt took the Tennessee head coaching job. And after just one season, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll took the same position with the Buffalo Bills.
Who's back. Despite the coordinator turnover for the second year in a row, Alabama is loaded on offense. The question is: Who will play quarterback? Jalen Hurts has started 28 games in his first two seasons on campus, and Alabama has lost only two of them. But the Crimson Tide replaced him with touted true freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the national championship, and Tagovailoa -- clearly the superior passer -- led a comeback from 13 down and threw the game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game. Whoever is playing quarterback will be flanked by Harris, plus top 2017 running back recruit Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs, and they'll play behind an experienced line that will be among the nation's best. With Ridley gone, the biggest question is at receiver, as he was the only Alabama player with more than 17 catches (he had 63). The leading returner receiver will be Jerry Jeudy, who had 14 catches for 264 yards. There's a ton of talent at the position, but Ridley's loss creates a gaping hole, especially if there's an expanded passing game built around Tagovailoa. Defensively, most of the returning experience is up front, as the linebacking corps will be in strong shape, led by Anfernee Jennings, Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses, among others, and Raekwon Davis will anchor what should be another stellar line.
2018 outlook. Alabama is likely to be the preseason AP No. 1 team for the fifth time under Saban. This past season was actually the first time that the Crimson Tide won the national title under Saban after beginning the season atop the poll. A ton of NFL talent is gone, of course, but, as always, new stars will emerge from Alabama's top recruiting classes. Plus, there's a strong foundation to build around on offense. They'll do so against a manageable schedule. Alabama opens the season in Orlando against Louisville, which loses Lamar Jackson. It plays only four true road games against Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU (two of which have new coaches), and its rotating crossover game is a manageable home date vs. Missouri. Alabama didn't actually win the SEC West in 2017, but it will enter 2018 as the overwhelming favorite, and deservedly so, even if Auburn especially could be a challenger again. Even with another new coordinator and huge holes to fill in the secondary, there's no reason to expect much of a drop-off on defense, and the offense we saw in the second half of the national title game could be poised for a season-long step forward next fall.
Early 2018 prediction: SEC champion, College Football Playoff
Who's gone. When Nick Chubb and Sony Michel signed with Georgia as five-star running back recruits in the class of 2014, and when each made an instant impact, nobody could have possibly predicted that they'd both stay for all four years. But they did, racking up over 8,000 career rushing yards between them. The Chubb/Michel era is over, however, as both are seniors who are bound for the NFL. Among key players gone on offense, they're joined by tight end Jeb Blazevich, left tackle Isaiah Wynn and top wideout Javon Wims, plus starter-turned-backup quarterback Jacob Eason, who will transfer. The defense is much harder hit. Butkus Award winning linebacker Roquan Smith left early for the draft, as expected, joining DT Trenton Thompson among the Bulldogs' early departures. Georgia also loses key defenders like safety Dominick Sanders, nose tackle John Atkins and linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and Reggie Carter. With CB Deandre Baker, DE Jonathan Ledbetter and LB D'Andre Walker all returning, all three defensive units have impact players to build around, but the losses will surely be felt.
Who's back. There's a lot to like, with Kirby Smart's impressive recruiting about to start paying off even more, too. Although the run to the national title game was done mostly with Mark Richt's recruits, perhaps the two biggest returning faces of the team in 2018 will be sophomores recruited by Smart: QB Jake Fromm and RB D'Andre Swift. Fromm replaced an injured Eason in the opener and never let go of the job, and even in the loss to Alabama, he looked like a budding star. He'll be ready to take more responsibility on his shoulders with Chubb and Michel gone, although the running game still is loaded with potential thanks to the explosive Swift, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry as the team's No. 3 tailback as a true freshman. There will be returning experience ahead of them on the line, and Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley give Fromm a promising receiving corps. Defensively, D'Andre Walker -- who finished second on the team with 13 ½ tackles for loss -- is set to become a star at outside linebacker as a senior, which is sorely needed, given the attrition that Georgia faces there. One lingering question is the potential return of veteran LB Natrez Patrick, who missed the playoff upon entering a drug treatment program.
2018 outlook. After visiting Notre Dame in nonconference play last year, things get easier in that regard. The Bulldogs, as always, play Georgia Tech, and the other three nonconference games are home dates with Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass. Auburn and Tennessee also visit Athens. The toughest addition to the schedule is Georgia's first trip to LSU since 2008. Florida and Tennessee will both enter the 2018 season with new head coaches, and while teams like South Carolina and Missouri have potential, they are unlikely to be serious threats to actually win the division. In Year 3 under Smart, Georgia is clearly a step -- or multiple steps -- ahead of the rest of the SEC East. Perhaps Florida and Tennessee will close the gap under Dan Mullen and Jeremy Pruitt, respectively, but a gap unquestionably exists entering 2018. Georgia has holes to fill, but it can build another contender around Fromm and Swift.
Early 2018 prediction: SEC East champions, Sugar Bowl