College Football
Nick Saban's replacement, CFB's next breakout star: What we're watching for this offseason
College Football

Nick Saban's replacement, CFB's next breakout star: What we're watching for this offseason

Published Jan. 10, 2024 8:48 p.m. ET

Less than 48 hours after the 2023 college football season came to a conclusion and the Michigan Wolverines were crowned national champions, the sporting world was rocked by news that legendary Alabama football coach Nick Saban was calling it quits.

[Legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban announces retirement]

Considered by many to be the greatest college football coach of all time, Saban, 72, just completed his 17th season at Alabama, which concluded with a loss to the eventual national champion Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. He owns a career record of 292-71-1 as a college head coach, which includes stops at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99), LSU (2000-04) and Alabama (2007-23).

So, with the shocking news of Saban's retirement, what does that mean for Alabama moving forward, and where might the program turn next?


FOX Sports college football experts Michael Cohen and Laken Litman break it down below, offering their thoughts on where Alabama goes next, as well as answering some big-picture questions heading into an offseason of uncertainty.

How surprised were you by Nick Saban's retirement on Wednesday, and where does Alabama go from here?

Michael Cohen: Very surprised. There are people close to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh who often say that Harbaugh will die coaching, that he'll be on a football field somewhere until his time is up — and they're only somewhat joking. Harbaugh and Saban are wildly different in the way they behave, their temperament and the manner in which they speak, all of which were on display when the two coaches shared a stage for a joint news conference before the Rose Bowl. But their shared love of football and the players they coach made them more alike than they are different. And it wouldn't have seemed outlandish for Saban, who will turn 73 in October, to squeeze out another decade leading the Crimson Tide. Such was his zest for the sport. 

Predicting where Alabama goes without Saban is difficult given the lack of an obvious replacement on the coaching staff. There's little question that Alabama is one of the premier jobs in college football given the university's financial backing and the robustness of a fan base that views the Crimson Tide like an NFL team. Things like resources, infrastructure and commitment from the people in power will be of no concern to potential candidates the way they might be at other institutions. The program is positioned to win whether Saban is on the sideline or not, though actually winning like Saban did is a different challenge altogether. Some of the candidates likely to be considered include Dan Lanning of Oregon, Dabo Swinney of Clemson, Kalen DeBoer of Washington and Mike Norvell of Florida State, among others. 

Lanning might be the most obvious fit given his familiarity with the SEC, where he cut his teeth at Georgia under Saban disciple Kirby Smart from 2018-21 and spent the 2015 season as a graduate assistant at Alabama. But the new contract Lanning signed this summer has a $20 million buyout, and Lanning has been vocal about his intent to stay with the Ducks. He quickly shot down rumors connecting him with the Texas A&M opening earlier in this coaching cycle. Could a place like Alabama test his resolve? 

Whoever winds up leading the Crimson Tide has the unenviable task of replacing arguably the greatest coach in college football history. Few people have meant more to college football than Saban, and the sport will surely miss him. 

[Nick Saban leaves the widest gaping hole in college football history]

Laken Litman: I could have seen Nick Saban coaching into his 80s. At 72 years old, he appears as energetic as ever. But it's not like he had anything left to prove. Saban has won seven national championships, which is more national championships than anybody else, and coached longer than Bama hero Bear Bryant, who was 69 years old when he retired. I would have thought Saban would love to get one more national championship in him before retiring – the Crimson Tide came close this season, but lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Though it's not totally surprising that he's leaving the game at a time when so much of the sport revolves around off-the-field topics like NIL, the transfer portal, conference realignment and the College Football Playoff.

Whoever replaces a legend like Saban will have a ripple effect that impacts the sport for years to come. A few coaches that come to mind to fill those shoes – or at least try to – are Lanning (Oregon), who was an Alabama graduate assistant in 2015 and spent four seasons coaching under Smart, and Swinney (Clemson), who is a Bama alum. DeBoer (Washington) and Norvell (Florida State) could also be names to watch.

What does this mean for the program? It certainly could trigger a mass exodus into the transfer portal and cause high school prospects to reopen their recruitment. It's hard to imagine the decision makers in Tuscaloosa didn't know this was coming though and probably do have a contingency plan in place. It will be fascinating to see what that is.

BREAKING: Nick Saban retiring as the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide

What will you be most interested in following the next couple of months?

Michael: One of the biggest storylines to follow over the next few weeks and months is what happens at Michigan, both in terms of the coaching staff and the roster itself. The primary question, obviously, is whether Harbaugh leaves for the NFL, where it seems like he'll have at least a few suitors after winning the national championship and only losing three games in the last three seasons combined.

Losing Harbaugh would be a tremendous blow given everything he means to the players and staff, but it's the potential butterfly effect of Harbaugh's departure that could have more significant ramifications in Ann Arbor. What happens if Harbaugh leaves and takes a handful of his assistant coaches with him? Defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, tight ends coach Grant Newsome, special teams coordinator Jay Harbaugh and strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert seem to be among the likeliest candidates. And if half the coaching staff leaves, how many players decide to move on as well, either by turning pro or entering the transfer portal? The futures of players like quarterback J.J. McCarthy, inside linebacker Junior Colson, tailback Donovan Edwards, safety Rod Moore and several of the veteran offensive linemen who could use their extra years of eligibility become particularly interesting in that scenario. 

That said, Michigan is a program to watch for the next few months. 

Laken: Nick Saban shocked the college football world on Wednesday when he announced his retirement. Saban will go down as the greatest college football coach of all time. He won seven national championships (six at Alabama), 11 SEC titles and spent 17 years as the Crimson Tide's head coach. 

So, if you thought Jim Harbaugh was this offseason's biggest coaching story, think again! Until further notice, the most important story in college football is who replaces Saban.

Nick Saban retiring after 17 seasons with Alabama | Speak

Is there a team primed to do what Michigan did in 2023, and who is it?

Michael: The program that immediately comes to mind is Georgia given the similarities at the quarterback position. Michigan finished 13-1 during McCarthy's first season as the starter in 2022, winning the Big Ten Championship for a second straight year before ultimately falling short in the College Football Playoff semifinals against TCU. Then McCarthy made significant strides from Year 1 to Year 2 as the Wolverines' starter — he improved his completion percentage from 64.6% to 72.3%; lowered his number of interceptions from five to four and increased his passing yardage from 2,719 to 2,991 — and carried Michigan to a third consecutive Big Ten Championship en route to the program's first outright national championship since 1948. 

It's easy to wonder if the same type of progression could happen at Georgia with quarterback Carson Beck returning for his second season as the starter. Beck had sizable shoes to fill after the departure of veteran and two-time national champion Stetson Bennett, who threw for more than 4,100 yards in 2022, but he stepped in with aplomb. He completed 72.4% of his 417 passes for 3,941 yards, 24 touchdowns and six interceptions, just two of which came over the final seven games. And Beck did all that despite key injuries to playmakers Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey, his two best receiving threats on the perimeter. He should be in the conversation for QB1 in the 2025 NFL Draft if all goes according to plan next season. 

Laken: Texas was one second away from playing in the national championship this year and with the way Steve Sarkisian is running things in Austin, there's a feeling that the Longhorns are "back" and here to stay. 

There are a few unknowns at the moment, the most important one being what starting quarterback Quinn Ewers is going to do. Will he stay in school for another year or declare for the NFL Draft? Should he return to Texas, that means the program has a veteran quarterback, tons of depth and a tested defense heading into 2024, the year it joins the SEC. To hit the ground running in the nation's most competitive conference with an experienced quarterback would be huge. 

Sarkisian, who led Texas to a Big 12 title and a CFP appearance in his third year, has said the program's resurrection is ahead of schedule. The Longhorns will lose key playmakers on both sides of the ball to the NFL – think Adonai Mitchell, Xavier Worthy, T'Vondre Sweat and Bryon Murphy. But there's more where that came from. For example, Texas could return four of its starting offensive linemen and Sarkisian's last two recruiting classes were both ranked No. 3 in the country.

If you had to pick one player fans must know about next season, who would it be?

Laken: Will Howard. The former Kansas State quarterback transferred to Ohio State earlier this month, replacing Kyle McCord, who left Columbus for Syracuse. The quarterback position was the Buckeyes' weakest link last year and Howard should give Ryan Day's offense a boost. There's a chance Michigan would not have made the CFP – or won a national championship – had Ohio State finished off that final decisive drive with a touchdown instead of McCord throwing an interception.

In four seasons playing for the Wildcats, Howard threw for 48 touchdowns and 5,786 yards. He led his team to a Big 12 championship over TCU in 2022, and was one of the more highly coveted and experienced quarterbacks to enter the transfer portal this offseason. He's a dual-threat QB known for his arm strength, and could be that missing piece Ohio State needs to snap a three-year losing streak to bitter rival Michigan.

Kansas State's Will Howard connects with Ben Sinnott for an 11-yard touchdown vs. Kansas

Michael: Alabama running back Justice Haynes. One of the key differences between this year's Alabama team that reached the College Football Playoff but fell short and the previous handful of teams that Saban guided to national titles was the absence of a premier tailback with early-round NFL potential. The 2009 Crimson Tide had Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. The 2011 team had Richardson and Eddie Lacy. The 2012 team had Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. The 2015 team had Derrick Henry. The 2017 team — which is the closest thing Saban's had to an exception to this rule — was led by third-round pick Damien Harris. The 2020 team had Najee Harris. This year's group, which did not produce a 1,000-yard rusher, featured Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams as the primary tailbacks in support of dual-threat quarterback Jalen Milroe

In a game with as many storylines as this year's Rose Bowl had, it was easy to overlook the contributions of No. 3 tailback Justice Haynes in an overtime loss to Michigan. Haynes only played 13 snaps against the Wolverines but carried the ball four times for 31 yards, with three of his runs moving the chains in a third quarter that, yardage-wise, was dominated by the Crimson Tide, 72-23. He gave Alabama an injection of life when it was badly needed, albeit in a limited role alongside Milroe, who should be back with the Crimson Tide next season.

With McClellan choosing to leave for the NFL and Williams entering the transfer portal, Haynes has a chance to become the featured back as a sophomore next season if he remains in Tuscaloosa. He was a five-star prospect and the No. 2 tailback in the 247Sports Composite for the 2023 recruiting cycle. 

What is something you expect to be a major storyline in 2024 that nobody is talking about? 

Michael: During the buildup to the final College Football Playoff rankings that ultimately determined this year's semifinalists, there was a segment of fans rejoicing in the possibility that the SEC might not have one of its teams included in the field. The most dynastical conference in the sport had housed the eventual national champions in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2017, 2015, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006, and fans from other parts of the country — especially north of the Mason-Dixon line — were eager for that run to end. The selection committee's decision to include one-loss Alabama over undefeated Florida State meant the SEC had a chance for another championship in 2023, but Michigan stamped that out by defeating the Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl. And when Washington defeated Texas in the Sugar Bowl, the north was assured of its first national title since Ohio State in 2014. 

While the idea that things like NIL and the transfer portal will continue distributing talent across the country is probably true, there's a chance the 2024 season looks more like what college football fans grew accustomed to over the last decade: menacing and merciless SEC dominance. With the impending addition of Texas, which is likely to be ranked among the top five in most preseason polls next summer, the SEC could produce one-third of the qualifiers for the first iteration of an expanded 12-team playoff. Alabama, Georgia and Texas seem like bonafide contenders based on the caliber of quarterbacks they have returning, and Ole Miss isn't far behind in the tier below. There's a strong chance teams like Tennessee, LSU, Missouri and Oklahoma — the conference's other newcomer — might also be ranked to begin the season. 

In other words, the SEC is locked and loaded for a monster year.

Laken: Not that people aren't always talking about Lane Kiffin, but what he's doing at Ole Miss could certainly be a storyline in 2024. Kiffin led the Rebels to the program's first-ever 11-win season in 2023. Their only two losses were to Alabama and Georgia, and they finished the season by beating Penn State in the Peach Bowl.

With all the excitement surrounding Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, plus the matter of Saban retiring and what that means for Alabama, don't forget about Ole Miss, who could certainly be a huge threat. Quarterback Jaxson Dart is returning for another season, and while Kiffin has lost guys to the transfer portal and the NFL, his offense will still be dangerous. 

Kiffin has also declared himself the "Portal King," adding some of the most coveted transfers on the market. This includes 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore defensive tackle Walter Nolen from Texas A&M, who was the No. 1 overall prospect in 2022. Ole Miss has a challenging schedule next year, which includes home games against Oklahoma and Georgia, so keeping tabs on Kiffin and Co. will be interesting, to say the least.

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.


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