Despite loss, Georgia should have a good feeling about its future

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Smart: 'We're not going anywhere' (2:44)

Georgia coach Kirby Smart gets choked up discussing his team's 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the CFP National Championship. (2:44)

ATLANTA -- Before the biggest game of their fledgling careers, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm found wide receiver Riley Ridley in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and told him his pregame premonition.

"I said, 'Man, I just feel it. I feel like you're going to have a great game,'" Fromm said.

Ridley had the best game of his career -- a team-leading six catches for 82 yards. Though it wasn't enough to beat Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, the accelerated maturation of its young players and the tangible experiences they gained this season are evidence of the possibilities that lie ahead for Georgia.

Fromm is a true freshman. Ridley is a sophomore. Their coach, Kirby Smart, just led his team to the national championship game in his second season -- and they led 13-0 at halftime before eventually losing 26-23 in overtime.

"Give them credit," Smart said of Alabama, "but I think everybody can see that Georgia's going to be a force to be reckoned with."

Call it a premonition.

It was only one season ago that Georgia finished 8-5. This season, the Bulldogs finished 13-2 with the program's first SEC title since 2005, a Rose Bowl win and a berth to the national title game.

Georgia fans flooded into the stadium just 70 miles from campus on Monday night, giddy with hope as Smart had the program one victory away from its first national title since 1980. Now the bar is set -- regardless of whether it's fair or realistic.

"It's a lot of motivation," Sony Michel said. "The standard is set. The guys coming back, I'm sure they're going to be hungry, they're going to be willing to work, to do whatever it takes to get back here plus more."

It's the seniors, though -- players like Michel, Nick Chubb and Javon Wims -- who have laid the foundation. As the Bulldogs were getting ready to run out of the tunnel and onto the field, Chubb found Smart and told him, "I'll go anywhere with you, and I'll follow you anywhere, and I'll fight for you because I believe in you."

"That meant more to me than anything," Smart said after the loss.

It was also a reminder of the kind of tangible leadership it takes to propel a team to the highest level. After spending 11 seasons on Nick Saban's staff, Smart understands The Process as well as anyone.

"I just hope the younger class doesn't take it for granted that it's just going to happen," Smart said. "You've got to make it happen, and they've got to believe that."

Georgia should be a consensus top-10 team heading into next season, in spite of losing an abundance of talent in the backfield and on defense. The Bulldogs will return 13 starters and also have the nation's No. 1 recruiting class coming in.

Oh, and they've got a starting quarterback who has already played for the national title.

Fromm, the SEC Freshman of the Year, finished his rookie season 12-2 as a starter.

"Fromm is a very bright kid," Ridley said. "You can ask anyone in the room that. He's very talented and he's very smart. Our coaches really trust him to make the right checks and the right reads. When he's out there if he has confidence in you he's going to continue to go to you. I guess I started out hot tonight and he continued to work me. Unfortunately we came up short, but it's branding and it's going to continue to grow."

Fromm's performance wasn't flawless, and at times he understandably looked like a freshman. He took a sack he could have avoided, and he threw an errant pass that bounced of a helmet and led to an interception, but it was a season-long process of learning that should only benefit the Bulldogs next fall.

"I wouldn't want to have no other quarterback," said receiver Terry Godwin. "He's out there making the right checks, putting us in the right plays, and off the field he's caring about us. He's an overall complete guy. On the field he's the leader we need."

They'll need it even more without the likes of Chubb, Michel and linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy -- all players who helped Georgia establish its identity as a team with a smashmouth defense and a powerful running game.

"We know our identity now," Ridley said. "We know the things we're capable of doing. Now it's just time to get back to school, get back in the lab, just start over. When you take a loss, that's all you can do ... get back to school and start over from scratch and build a better and stronger identity."

There's only one concern for Georgia: Alabama won the national title with a true freshman quarterback. The Bulldogs aren't the only ones who set the standard on Monday night.

Call it a premonition.