ATLANTA -- One press release in December 2016 changed everything. It showed that Georgia's players had bought in. It laid the foundation for the 2017 SEC Championship run that culminates Monday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship.

In it, running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, announced they would return for their senior seasons with the red and black.

"Try to leave a legacy," Michel said of the decision. "We came back to work. Our whole focus was to buy into this program and get as much accomplished as we can."

Michel and Chubb have done just that. Chubb rushed for 145 yards against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinal, while Michel rushed for 181 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown in double overtime to break the FBS record for yards by a rushing tandem with 8,259, eclipsing SMU's Eric Dickerson and Craig James.

"You've got to say that, with all of the things that have taken place this year with Georgia football, that decision of theirs, arguably, might have been the most profound," said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "I know, on our side of the ball, [Chubb and Michel] staying really impacted what has taken place this year."

On defense, it was more of the same.

It was apparent early when Bellamy sacked and stripped Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush and Carter recovered the fumble to seal the win in South Bend in Week 2. It appeared again last week when Carter blocked Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert's field-goal attempt in the top half of the second overtime, two plays before Michel's game-winner.

"We wanted something bigger for ourselves and this team," said Carter. "We could have easily left, but we have bigger goals in sight. There's a bigger vision. We let them guys know that we came back for a reason, and we're not going to settle for less."

The guys Carter is referring two are the younger players coach Kirby Smart has been able to add to an already-loaded roster through two stellar recruiting classes during his first two seasons in the Classic City. Guys like defensive lineman David Marshall, defensive back Richard LeCounte, running back D'Andre Swift and even starting quarterback Jake Fromm, who took over in the first quarter of the first game in place of injured sophomore Jacob Eason.

"It really impacted the younger guys," said Chubb. "We really care for this team and this university. We want to play and win games for this university. Nothing else really matters to us but playing for this team and this school. It brought everyone together."

Smart is not surprised by this. In fact, he expected it.

"When I found out the seniors were coming back, I was elated," he said. "I knew we had a chance to be good, but with them staying, it gave us an opportunity to do something like this."

The hope for Chubb, Michel, Carter and Bellamy is that their decision to return will not only lead to Georgia's first national title since 1980 but set the tone for a Georgia dynasty that closely resembles the one Smart was a part of when he was Alabama's defensive coordinator under Nick Saban.

"For Athens and Atlanta," said Carter. "We're trying to hold it down for the city. A lot of people didn't believe in us and a lot of people still don't believe in us, but we believe in us and that's all that matters."

That belief stems from the conviction of four of Georgia's biggest stars, who set this all into motion 13 months ago.