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Analyzing the impact of coaching changes on the upcoming college football season

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We’re sure you’ve all heard the news by now, but in case you’ve spent the past month in North Korea, Jim Harbaugh announced that he’d be headed back to the NFL as head coach of the LA Chargers. Harbaugh capped off his nine-year run at his Alma Mater with Michigan’s first title since 1997, and while a national championship-winning head coach leaving his school would typically spawn an immediate “what’s next?” conversation for that school, this seems to us to be much more about Harbaugh and what he was able to accomplish over the past decade than it is about the future of Michigan Football. This is truly the end of an era, a unique period of time not only for Michigan and the Big Ten, but for college football as a whole.

Harbaugh left the San Francisco 49ers, where he made three consecutive NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl, only due to disagreements with front office management and his lack of influence and power on personnel decisions. Michigan had been in a rough, rough place for years, so when Harbaugh decided it was up to him to bring his old school back to glory, it seemed like an absolutely perfect match. But things didn’t get off to the hottest start. Harbaugh’s first couple of seasons with the Wolverines were marginally successful – Michigan went 10-3 in both 2015 and 2016, but was often talked about more for its shortcomings than its successes. Whether it was the Michigan State “Trouble With the Snap” fiasco in 2015 (Tate was at this game, by the way), Harbaugh’s weird public statements and actions, or Michigan’s complete and utter lack of competent quarterback play, Harbaugh’s honeymoon phase as the savior of Michigan Football was quickly fading away. After Michigan dropped to 8-5 in 2017, questions about Harbaugh’s commitment to recruit and work at the level it would take to bring the Wolverines back to national relevance started to creep in. 2019 saw Michigan lose its 4th consecutive bowl game and 5th consecutive Ohio State game, and after a disastrous COVID season in 2020 that saw Michigan go 2-4 and look absolutely inept doing it, it really looked like Michigan was going to fire him. Harbaugh’s shtick of riling other coaches up and just his overall posture of being the strangest guy in the sport was starting to rub people the wrong way – losing has a way of doing that.

But to Michigan’s credit, they didn’t fire him. They stuck with their guy and let him prove that he was worth all of the strange actions and controversial public statements. To Harbaugh’s credit, he quieted down the antics and agreed to entirely restructure his contract that significantly decreased his base salary, but provided incentives if he and his team hit certain goals. And hit them they did, finally claiming a monumental victory over Ohio State and winning the Big Ten for the first time since he arrived and making it to the College Football Playoff in 2021. Then, despite openly hunting for NFL jobs that offseason, he did all of those things again in 2022. While those first two CFP appearances were abject failures, there was no question that Michigan was now in a much better place than Harbaugh had found it.

And then he did the whole damn thing. Michigan just went 15-0, beating Ohio State for the third straight time and winning its third consecutive Big Ten Championship in the process. Harbaugh won his first playoff game (against Nick Saban’s Alabama, no less) and went on to win Michigan’s first national title in over 25 years. He did it. Through all of the crazy off the field nonsense including an entire cheating scandal this season, the inexcusable losses that marred his first several years in Ann Arbor, five consecutive losses to Ohio State and a 2-4 shortened 2020 season, he did exactly what he set out to do – he brought Michigan back to national relevance, back to glory. 

Michigan is set to hire offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore – who actually acted as Michigan’s head coach four separate times this season due to Harbaugh’s multiple suspensions – and while we have no doubt he is equipped for the job and will keep this Michigan roster much more intact than what has happened at Alabama in recent weeks, it’s a bit hard to see a reality where Michigan continues to dominate Ohio State and the changing Big Ten in perpetuity without Harbaugh. But frankly, nobody in Ann Arbor seems to give a damn about all of that right now. The Harbaugh experience was a resounding success, and his return to the NFL was a known goal of his, an inevitability. He won a national championship and undoubtedly left this Michigan program in a far better place than he found it.

Farewell, Jim. College Football will miss you.

We’re not sure if you heard yet, but Nick Saban retired  and Alabama announced Washington’s Kalen DeBoer as Saban’s replacement. Since then, things have been, uh, pretty rough for the Crimson Tide. Several Alabama players went ahead and declared for the NFL draft, including star players Dallas Turner, Kool-Aid McKinstry, Terrion Arnold, #2 receiver Jermaine Burton, and starting running back Jase McClellan, among others. Then Saban retired, and we saw an influx of Alabama entrants into the transfer portal, including #1 receiver Isaiah Bond (Texas), #2 running back Roydell Williams (FSU) starting tight end Amari Niblack (unofficial, but sounds like Texas), and defensive back Antonio Kite, known as one of the more athletic players to ever come out of the state of Alabama, already announced his commitment to rival Auburn. 23 (!!) Alabama players had already entered the portal at the start of this week.

And then it got worse. After days of speculation, star true freshman safety Caleb Downs officially entered his name in the portal as well. Downs was absolutely incredible this past season – he was the SEC Freshman of the Year, he was an All-SEC and All-American selection, the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year award winner, and down the stretch of the season was simply one of the best players in the entire sport. He was a 5-star coming out of high school and largely thought of as one of the best defensive backs in a long, long time. Here is what the world’s most famous recruiting analyst, Steve Wiltfong, had to say about him on Wednesday. Losing Downs is an absolute blow to the Tide, not just because of his talent, but because he was looked at as a leader on Alabama’s defense, which was only going to continue to continue and grow over the next couple of years. Georgia appears to be the destination for Downs who is originally from GA, which was certainly helped by Kirby’s hire of Alabama DB coach Travaris Robinson last week. Landing Downs, who immediately became the #1 player to enter the portal this year, certainly furthers the consensus opinion that the 2024 Dawgs are about to be an absolute death squad.

But oh, it didn’t end there. Wednesday also brought the news that true freshman left tackle Kadyn Proctor would also be entering the portal. Proctor started at left tackle for the Tide from day 1, as he was also a 5-star and the consensus #1 OT coming out of high school last year. This is especially tough because Terrance Ferguson, Proctor’s very talented backup, already transferred to Florida State earlier this month to pursue more playing time. Proctor appears to be headed to play for Iowa, where he is from and was originally committed before flipping to Alabama.

To be fair to the Tide, we are not entirely sure that the current transfer portal setup is really fair to teams that are in Alabama’s position. As a reminder, there are two primary transfer portal windows – one immediately following the season, and one still to come following the end of spring practices in April. But an additional 30-day window opens for players at a school where there is a head coaching change, which is the situation that Alabama, Washington, and Arizona are currently in. It certainly seems like an uneven playing field for other schools to be allowed to cherry-pick your roster, while their own players literally aren’t even allowed to enter the portal for another 3+ months. We’re not sure that there’s a clear fix here, but we’ll be interested to see if the NCAA attempts to solve this issue this offseason.

Regardless, what a rough month it’s been for the Tide. We still believe that Kalen Deboer was as good a hire as Alabama could have made, and we certainly don’t think Alabama is falling to the bottom half of the SEC or anything of the sort. Deboer made another good hire this week, landing his second former head coach on his defensive staff in Buffalo’s Maurice Linguist. But it seems clear that the Tide are about to take a clear step back in the short term, and Deboer’s responsibility to keep the Alabama roster more talented than 99% of the sport looks to be getting more difficult by the day. Let’s see what you got, Kalen.

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