A 12-team playoff, no more Nick Saban — college football is at a turning point.

What will the game look like in five or 10 years? Will it still be recognizable as the sport that has engendered the sort of die-hard fans that the pro game only wishes it had?

Are we headed toward a time when NIL and collectives will morph into profit-sharing or straight payments between university athletic departments and their players? And, if we are, will the college game become nothing more than collection of minor leagues grooming talent for the NFL?

And how will all this affect the Georgia Bulldogs?

No one really knows at this point, but college football fans, like my great nephew, who closely follows recruiting and the transfer portal (in itself a big change of relatively recent vintage), like to quote various sites as “crystal balling” a player to a particular school/team that he’s thought to favor.

Xavier Truss blocks during the Orange Bowl game, where FSU had numerous players opt out of participating. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

It’s a reference to 247 Sports’ Crystal Ball Predictions Feed, which keeps track of where various “experts” think top recruits might wind up, but it has become a sort of general term for predicting the unpredictable.

So, here’s my stab at crystal balling where college football is headed, along with some thoughts from several other Dawgs fans.

First of all, I think the retirement of Saban will bring to fruition what many prematurely had declared after the Dawgs’ back-to-back national championships: Georgia is the “new” Alabama. In other words, it’s the program that sits at the top of the SEC until someone else knocks it off that perch. Even before Saban’s retirement, Georgia was considered the favorite for next season’s national championship.

Considering the rate at which Kirby Smart continues to recruit elite players to Athens — even more of a necessity in the portal era — UGA’s glory days could continue for quite a while. Sure, some players who don’t get to start as soon as they’d like will hit the portal, but the folks remaining will have bested them in competition for the first-team nod.

Anyway, Georgia looks to be in good shape. But what about the college game in general? Where is it headed?

I first started thinking seriously about that after the Orange Bowl game, when Smart, coming off his team’s total shellacking of FSU, used his postgame press conference to call for change.

The early transfer portal makes roster management a major chore for coaches like Mike Bobo. (Connor Riley/Dawgnation) (Connor Riley/Dawgnation)

“People need to see what happened tonight and they need to fix this,” Smart said. “It needs to be fixed. … I know things are changing. Things are going to change next year. … People got to decide what they want and what they really want to get out of it.”

What exact change Smart had in mind was left unsaid, though he apparently was bothered by the number of FSU players opting out of participating in the Orange Bowl. (Georgia didn’t have any opt-outs for the game, but the program has had players opt out of a non-playoff bowl in the past.)

Smart also might have had in mind the early transfer portal, which currently takes place in the month before the bowl games.

Both of those, along with the early signing period taking place during December, were cited by Bowl Season Executive Director Nick Carparelli, who told Yahoo Sports: “We need to revisit the structure around the transfer portal. Maybe there should only be one transfer portal window that happens at the end of the academic year.”

Of course, that would be a problem for the many coaches who are using the portal to repair or build their programs, since it would prevent transferring players from participating in spring drills.

Glenn Schumann, Georgia co-defensive coordinator, is seen during the 2022 College Football Playoff. This year, the playoff expands to 12 teams. (Perry McIntyre/UGA) (Perry McIntyre/Dawgnation)

Jeff Dantzler of the Bulldogs radio network thinks “the biggest starting point we need now is a functioning timeline. Doing away with early signing would be a good start. That, combined with the portal, has made roster management for the upcoming season [difficult]. While trying to prepare for postseason and with assistant coaches moving, December has turned into a trying month. And now there will be home playoff games in the month.”

One suggestion to cut down on opt-outs has been for local businesses in cities where bowl games take place to open up NIL marketplaces for visiting teams, to provide a greater incentive for their players to participate. The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte did that this year.

A plan like that could be even more important now that the playoff is expanding, making the nonplayoff bowls even less interesting to players.

While some of us already think there are entirely too many bowl games, they exist for a reason: People watch them, with even minor bowl games frequently drawing bigger audiences than NBA games. No wonder ESPN owns 17 of the bowls.

Starting this year, the new 12-team College Football Playoff format will see the six highest-ranked conference champions receiving automatic bids, with the top four conference champs getting a first-round bye to the quarterfinals. The six highest-ranked teams remaining in the CFP rankings will round out the 12-team field.

The New Year’s Six bowls will rotate the new expanded playoff’s quarterfinal and semifinal games. (Vasha Hunt/Peach Bowl) (Vasha Hunt/Dawgnation)

If you’re not one of the four teams getting a bye, that means you’ll play a first-round game (at a site selected by the higher ranked team, probably at home). Then, the winners go on to the quarterfinals. The winners of those games next play in the semifinals. (Both those rounds will be in the New Year’s Six bowls on a rotating basis.) And, finally, the last two teams standing play for the title in cities that bid for the honor (Atlanta in 2024).

That means that if a team not getting a bye makes it to the championship, they will have participated in four playoff games. Plus, the losers of the conference championship games will have had another postseason game, as well.

“Conference title games have proven oftentimes to be more punitive that beneficial,” Dantzler said. “If you lose it under the new format, you’d have to play 17 games to be in the national title game.”

That’s one reason a lot of folks think the expansion of the playoff could mean that, eventually, conference championship games will go away, especially if the losers of those games don’t make the playoff. Or it could mean that the playoff will be expanded even more to make sure the conference championship losers do make the playoff.

Helen Castronis, whose father, “Coach Mike,” spent his career at UGA, summed it up nicely: “The constants are the NIL, portal and opting out. There’s no putting the genie back in that bottle.”

She also said she doesn’t think “bowl games in the traditional sense make sense. Maybe colleges will go more to a division system and playoffs, like high school, rather than conferences. And the bowls will be incorporated into these playoffs.”

Todd Gurley was suspended for selling autographs in the era before players gained the right to profit of their name, image and likeness. (Getty Images) (Kevin C. Cox/Dawgnation)

Already, the changes implemented in the game over the past few years don’t sit well with some fans, who lament on social media that everyone’s a free agent nowadays.

One of my UGA classmates, Steve Oney, riffed on an R.E.M. lyric in putting it this way: “For college football, this is the end of the world as we know it — and I don’t feel fine.”

The big problem in his mind is how TV money has reshaped the conference configurations. “There’s a tail-wagging-the dog quality to it all,” he said. “The tail is ESPN and Fox.”

Unfortunately, those fans who don’t like the recent changes probably are going to hate the future even more.

My son Bill and I were discussing what we think lies ahead, and one of the biggest changes we see is college players becoming employees and getting paid directly, with some kind of collective bargaining unit formed to allow for salary regulation, and perhaps even contracts.

Actually, former sportswriter Charlie Hayslett thinks that, with NIL and the portal, college football now officially has become what it has been for a while — “a really lucrative semi-pro league that is finally compensating the guys who are paying the bills. I’d love to know what Todd Gurley thinks of NIL.” (Gurley, infamously, had his run toward a Heisman sidetracked in 2014 by being suspended for selling a few autographs, something that now is legal, with players allowed to profit of their name, image and likeness.)

Stanford will be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2024, along with Cal and SMU. (Stanford Football) (Stanford Football/Dawgnation)

The idea of player compensation (in addition to NIL, or perhaps replacing it) has been picking up steam. After his team won the College Football Playoff championship this past week, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh endorsed the idea of college athletes unionizing, in order to get some sort of revenue sharing or salaries and employee status.

You might agree with my brother Jonathan, who characterized that idea as “insanity,” but signing players to a contract could at least slow the flow of players into the portal if, say, they are required to play at the school they sign with for at least two years before they can transfer. The upside: Everyone wouldn’t be a free agent all the time, like they are now, and you wouldn’t be able to transfer any time you felt like it.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Carlton Powell thinks there will have to be some constraints put on the portal. He noted that coaches already are growing tired of “having to recruit current players as well as new ones every year.”

My son and I also don’t think conference collapse/expansion is done, with the Atlantic Coast Conference (which, incredibly, is picking up a couple of West Coast members) looking particularly vulnerable to being cannibalized by other conferences.

We also think you’ll eventually see a new upper tier of college football consisting of all the elite programs, who will have their own set of rules on player compensation, separate from the rest of the NCAA’s Division 1. The rest of the schools probably will be scholarship-only, or might have some minor NIL on the side.

The NCAA’s Division 1 Council is studying President Charlie Baker’s baby-step plan unveiled last month, calling for the creation of a new top-level division that would require the schools in it to put a minimum of $30,000 per year into a trust fund for at least half of its scholarship athletes (and would give them more control over NIL).

Fans currently identify with their team and their region. Will that be the same in the future? (Arvin Temkar/AJC) (Arvin Temkar/Dawgnation)

Still, many observers believe the NCAA is unlikely to take any meaningful action, even on that idea, and instead will just kick the can down the road again. However, at some point, the courts or Congress probably will get involved and make it happen.

Scott Peacocke thinks “the next 20 years will be an ongoing tug of war in courtrooms as various proposals and models are put forth by governing organizations (the NCAA, the conferences) and then subsequently are challenged by agents, athletes and those schools left with smaller slices of the pie. Not very exciting, but only lawyers and judges can eventually resolve the issues that currently exist.”

As Dantzler said, “We need everyone on the same page, in terms of schools and leagues doing what’s best for college football. Having the [television] money split equally, like the NFL, and [the conferences] going to the networks as one entity would be powerful. And leagues could return to being regionally and geographically based, avoiding absurd situations like Cal and Stanford being in the Atlantic Coast Conference.”

Oney agrees: “The loss of regional flavor also bothers me. At SEC games, you smell the barbecue. At Big 10 games, you can feel the cold. The new normal will be more uniform. I like quirky.”

Joel Provano takes a more dire view that “the professionalization of college football is a threat to the future of the sport. The more college football becomes like the NFL’s minor leagues, the more it loses contact with what made it special in the first place: amateur athletes competing for their school. As that link deteriorates, college football will become comparable to minor league baseball — and about as popular.”

Kirby Smart, seen here with Dillon Bell after a win over Tennessee, has shown a willingness to adapt to changes in college football. (Jeff Sentell/Dawgnation) (Jeff Sentell/Dawgnation)

Others think a two-tier system is unavoidable. Retired Atlanta sportscaster Bill Hartman, whose dad was the namesake of UGA’s Hartman Fund, believes “there will be 30 or so teams whose fans will shell out money to the collectives and the NIL deals to get the best players, and the other schools will be left to offer scholarship money and not much else. And that’s OK. That brand of football may, down the road, turn out to be the best.

“That [lower] level of college ball will still bring out the emotions, while the new tier of college ball will eventually see its fan base become less interested. It won’t happen right away, because those players wearing the ‘G’ on the helmet will still look like Georgia players, but we will soon figure out that they care little about what we cared about when we spent our time in Athens.”

The NFL lacks the emotional fan support that the college game has, Hartman said, “because those fans know the players are in it for the money. And those players will leave for a better deal. Unless something is done soon, college football fans will fall out of love with their players, too.”

Jason Hasty, UGA athletics history specialist at the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library, said that while a “super division” of top programs willing to invest in rosters capable of competing for championships “might be great fodder for the television networks, what will it do to the fans whose loyalties are built on generations of rivalries, big games in college stadiums, and playing certain opponents at certain times of year?

“Are we already taking championship games away from fans through high prices for tickets and travel, only to place those tickets in the hands of corporate sponsors, such has been the case with the Super Bowl for so many years? College sports have been built for generations on the passions and loyalty of fans. I hope that we aren’t losing sight of that in a rush for network profits.”

Will Georgia and Florida fans continue to show up in Jacksonville, no matter how college football changes? (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

Despite all of that, Hasty thinks that “Georgia, especially, is ideally suited for whatever the next phase of college athletics will be. Throughout the history of college athletics, the best coaches have shown the ability to make incremental or dramatic changes as necessary. Bear Bryant was a master of this, as was Nick Saban. … Coach Smart has already shown that he is willing to adapt as football has so rapidly changed since he took over as head coach.”

Still, Dantzler said, even with all the changes we’ve seen, there “is nothing like a college football Saturday. It is the great unifier, brings people together. The traditions and legacy are sheer Americana.”

I can’t help wondering, though, whether fans of UGA and other schools eventually will fall out of love with players who are paid contract workers, as Hartman warned, and stop paying big bucks for season tickets and donating to build athletic facilities.

Peacocke doesn’t think so: “I’ve said for years that if you took a team of walk-ons from UGA and another from Florida and have them play for the annual stakes in Jacksonville, that 80,000 fans would still show up.”

That’s a comforting thought, amid all the uncertainty the game faces these days.