With Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban Gone, College Football’s New Era Will Begin

College Football: CFP National Championship: Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh in action, victorious after the game while being interviewed by ESPN broadcaster Holly Rowe vs Washington at NRG Stadium. 
Houston, TX 1/8/2024
CREDIT: Erick W. Rasco (Photo by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) 
(Set Number: X164476 TK1)

Set Number: X164476 TK1

The departures are enormous. There’s no other way to process it. In just the past few weeks, college football has said farewell to perhaps its two most charismatic and gifted coaches.

In somewhat fitting fashion, they just so happened to play against each other one last time on the way out.

Nick Saban, after his legendary career at Alabama and elsewhere, decided it was time to retire. Jim Harbaugh, after conquering Ohio State and the Big Ten and college football, decided it was time to leave Michigan for the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday.

Harbaugh’s exit was somewhat expected given his continued flirtations with the NFL over the past few years. Saban’s decision, while inevitable given his time spent in the sport and his age, still left many in disbelief.

For Harbaugh, it was the journey. It was the quirkiness bordering on weird. It was the fact that he was nearly fired from his dream job and nearly left a handful of other times. It was the reality that he might have repeatedly broken NCAA rules, beating Ohio State three consecutive times along the way.

Oh, and he won a national championship on the way out.

For Saban, it was the prolonged excellence. It was unfathomable, constant domination. It was the sideline tirades. It was the relentless recruiting and the relentless winning. It was the way he continuously adapted his style to win along with, well, more winning.

As a result of their departures, the sport is worse off. Loved by plenty and hated by plenty more, Saban and Harbaugh represented the best of college football. They were elite coaches who assembled elite rosters. They were highly competitive and highly successful.

They were drenched in personality—unique from each other and everyone else. They were perfect for a sport that thrives on emotion. They were the biggest characters in college football by a wide margin.

And now they’re gone. One era has closed. Another will soon begin.

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs off the field at halftime during the CFP Semifinal Rose Bowl Game against the Michigan Wolverines at Rose Bowl Stadium on January 1, 2024 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)

Ryan Kang/Getty Images

Perhaps that sounds sensationalist to some, although the timing is significant. As NIL, the transfer portal and roster management engulf the sport, Saban and Harbaugh exit college football as it struggles to find its footing in many respects.

While the job of a college football coach has become more complicated, it would be unfair, without their confirmation, to assume they left because of these changes and the pressures they’re creating on head coaches. Both had unique successes and opportunities; both felt the time was right.

Those pressures, however, are real. Regardless of intent, the timing is symbolic.

Beyond the challenges of roster management, the College Football Playoff will expand from four teams to 12 later this year. That change alone would have been a lot to process. Throw in another massive round of conference expansion—coupled with the death of the Pac-12—and further renovations take shape.

The sport you consumed in 2023 will look vastly different come fall. It is, simply put, a lot. Whether this is good or bad will be determined in the years ahead, although change is imminent.

The fact that Saban and Harbaugh won’t be around to see these changes through has created an emptiness of sorts. While rules evolve, teams move around and rosters change drastically every year, they have been there.

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide and head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines meet after the Wolverines beat the Crimson Tide 27-20 in overtime to win the CFP Semifinal Rose Bowl Game at Rose Bowl Stadium on January 01, 2024 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Harry How/Getty Images

At a time when college football is swarming with an unknown, these absences will create an adjustment. It will also provide opportunities for other teams to perhaps finally break through.

Will Saban’s departure finally give other teams in the SEC, outside Georgia, more access to postseason success? Will Harbaugh’s exit from Michigan give teams outside of Ohio State a greater opportunity to breakthrough in the Big Ten?

We shall see. But with access already increasing with the expanded playoff, it feels like a swarm is coming. These departures will create hope for many programs that have been on the wrong side of prolonged dominance.

And with the ability to recreate a roster in one offseason, much like we’ve seen with Ole Miss and Ohio State through the transfer portal over the past few months, this feels like a moment.

Change isn’t just coming. It has arrived.

Although the sport is as popular as it has ever been, college football also feels unrecognizable in many respects. Saturdays are (and will always be) sacred.

But getting to those Saturdays is currently on an undefined path.

While it might seem overstated to connect Harabugh and Saban to such changes, one can’t help but wonder what the sport will look like five years from now.

Heck, how about one year from now?

Removing all that personality and success all at once will have an impact, one way or another. In many respects, this feels like a “before” and after “moment.” The after has arrived.

The conferences have changed or gone away, the postseason has exploded, the rules are without true guardrails, and the sport’s two biggest sideline stars have moved on.

The true impact of all these collisions and happenings won’t be known for some while, but the impact will be real.

Welcome to college football’s new era.

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