Continual change is the new normal for college football, as is UGA’s elite status.

As it now stands, Kirby Smart’s program appears likely to enter the 2024 season ranked No. 1.

Or, as the headline on a recent online article asked: “Will it really be ‘Georgia and everyone else’ this season in college football?”

Elsewhere, though, changes are coming right and left. ESPN recently snapped up the television rights to the newly expanded College Football Playoff, and that network is working with Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery to create a monster joint-venture streaming platform that some folks worry one day might replace traditional “linear” broadcasting as the home of most college and professional sports.

(In the meantime, it should please the increasing number of “cord-cutters” who are leaving the traditional cable and satellite services. Subscribers to the as-yet-unnamed service will have access to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC Network, ACC Network, ESPNews, ABC, Fox, FS1, FS2, BTN, TNT, TBS, truTV and ESPN+.)

College football is changing so quickly that its future is kind of hazy, as the Magic 8 Ball might say. (Mattel) (Mattel/Dawgnation)

And the Southeastern Conference has formed a “joint advisory group” with the Big 10 to discuss recent court decisions, pending litigation, governance proposals and state laws, in an effort to “take a leadership role in developing solutions for a sustainable future of college sports.”

You know we’ve moved into the Upside Down when those two old adversaries suddenly are on the same page.

Change is happening at such a rapid rate, in fact, that trying to “crystal ball” the long-range future of the game, as some fellow fans and I tried recently, has become something of a crapshoot.

Rather than crystal-balling, predicting college football’s future is more like playing that Magic 8 Ball kids game, and the answer we keep getting after shaking the ball is: “Reply hazy, try again.”

But, in the immediate future, every way-too-early college football ranking I’ve seen has the Dawgs at No. 1. That’s not surprising, since Georgia looks to be very good again on offense, despite the loss of Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey, with Carson Beck back at QB and a load of talent at running back, receiver and tight end. And the Dawgs should be about as good on defense as they were this past season.

Carson Beck returns to lead a potent Georgia offense in the 2024 season. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (Hyosub Shin/Dawgnation)

Part of that is due to Smart continuing his masterful drawing of top talent to Athens, with Georgia No. 1 in the 247Sports recruiting rankings for the fourth time in his eight years as head coach. (Only once has Georgia finished lower than third in the recruiting rankings under Smart.)

Georgia’s 2024 recruiting class includes five prospects who carry five-star ratings, as well as 19 four-stars. The Bulldogs signed the most five-stars and Top-100 recruits (10) in the country.

And, on top of that, Smart and his staff are known for developing players with three stars or less into future NFL prospects.

Rivals national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said this of Smart: “Since Nick Saban retired, he is unequivocally the best recruiter in college football. I don’t even think it’s a discussion at this point. Not only is what he’s doing impressive recruiting-wise, but he’s turning them into national champions and NFL draft picks. That has a snowball effect. Kids are going there and getting developed, they’re becoming millionaires because of it, and that will only beget more kids that want to do it in Athens.”

Kirby Smart is considered the master of college football recruiting. (University of Georgia) (University of Georgia/Dawgnation)

Ironically, where the consensus view of Georgia’s upcoming college football season departs drastically from last year’s conventional wisdom is in the schedule. This time last year, despite Smart’s protestations, many if not most college football observers saw the Dawgs as having an “easy” schedule, particularly early on.

It became an annoying meme that devalued Georgia’s regular-season domination.

This year, the characterization of UGA’s schedule that I’ve seen most often is “brutal.”

That’s because three of the Dawgs’ biggest conference games — Alabama, Texas and Ole Miss — on the road, and that’s not even counting the neutral-site opener in Atlanta against Clemson.

Still, if Smart’s Dawgs are able to avoid the loss or two in the regular season that many prognosticators see as inevitable, he’ll likely be hailed as having done the best coaching job of his career.

The Dawgs again will visit Tuscaloosa this season, as they did in 2020. (AJC file) (AJC file/Dawgnation)

Regardless, a berth in the SEC Championship Game is seen as very likely for the Dawgs, and even a Georgia team with a regular season loss and/or a loss in the SEC Championship game probably would make the 12-team playoff.

Ohio State, which has picked up some blue-chip transfers in the offseason — including veteran quarterback Will Howard from Kansas, five-star safety Caleb Downs from Alabama, five-star QB prospect Julian Sayin from Alabama and SEC rushing leader Quinshon Judkins from Ole Miss — looks to be the Bulldogs’ main early rival for the national championship, which will be decided in Atlanta this year.

Of course, Georgia being in the preseason national championship discussion is nothing new.

As for upcoming changes, there are some minor ones — including the SEC game of the week leaving CBS for ESPN, beer sales at Sanford Stadium and proposed NCAA rule changes to add an NFL-style 2-minute warning and legalize helmet communication and use of sideline tablets during a game.

But much bigger changes for college sports, particularly football, are looming on the horizon.

A concession employee pours a beer for a Georgia fan at Stegeman Coliseum. Sanford Stadium begins beer sales this fall. (Jason Getz / (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

As I’ve discussed here before, many observers feel it’s only a matter of time before the so-called “amateur” template that the NCAA has clung to for so many years goes away, and college football players become employees — or, at least, contract workers — for those programs operating at an elite level.

A skepticism over just how well the NCAA will deal with all of that might be behind the SEC and Big 10 coming together in a study group made up of university presidents and athletic directors.

In other words, they want to be proactive and try to make sure that the new-look college football landscape jibes with their 34 schools’ best interests.

The new consulting group won’t have the authority to implement any changes; rather, its chief aim is to make sure the big programs won’t have to give in to what the general NCAA membership thinks.

As ESPN’s Pete Thamel put it: “These leagues don’t want Eastern Michigan having a say in what happens at Michigan or Florida International affecting Florida.”

They’re also interested in favorably settling a pending federal lawsuit that accuses the NCAA and its conferences of violating antitrust laws with their previous (and now abandoned) prohibition on players earning money from their name, image and likeness. Other pending lawsuits deal with whether players should be considered employees of their schools.

One thing the SEC and Big 10 probably are not thinking of doing is splitting off from the NCAA completely — primarily because they wouldn’t want to give up participating in basketball’s lucrative March Madness and College World Series.

ESPN soon will have control over nearly all Division I college sports championships, outside of the men’s basketball tournament. (ESPN) (ESPN/Dawgnation)

“The Big 10 and the SEC have substantial investment in the NCAA, and there is no question that the voices of our two conferences are integral to governance and other reform efforts,” Big 10 Commissioner Tony Petitti said in a statement. “We recognize the similarity in our circumstances, as well as the urgency to address the common challenges we face.”

Reading between the lines, the two leading conferences primarily want to have a say in figuring out how to approach player compensation, preferring not to leave that issue to the enfeebled NCAA or the unpredictable rules that might come out of individual state legislatures, Congress or, more likely, the courts.

“We do not have predetermined answers to the myriad questions facing us,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in his statement. “We do not expect to agree on everything, but enhancing interaction between our conferences will help to focus efforts on common sense solutions.”

UGA President Jere Morehead told the Athletic that he believes the SEC and Big 10 will be “working with others as this moves forward. It won’t be just those two. But that’s a great start.”

One thing that already has school officials at the elite level licking their chops is the prospect of even more millions of dollars rolling in as a result of ESPN’s pending new CFP deal — plus whatever they can get from the combo of the self-described Worldwide Leader in Sports with Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery as streaming becomes a bigger part of the college game.

Of course, it’s not like they’re exactly hurting already. Sankey recently announced the distribution of $741 million to the SEC’s 14 universities for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which ended Aug. 31, 2023. That includes $718 million distributed directly from the conference office, and an additional $23 million retained by universities that participated in 2022-23 football bowl games. The payout averaged $51.3 million per SEC school.

And that was before ESPN agreed to pay $7.8 billion in a pending six-year deal that will make it the home of the 12-team College Football Playoff through the 2031-32 season — once the leaders of the CFP sort out exactly how they’re going to structure their operation.

The original plan (before the Pac-12 imploded) was for the playoff to include the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest-ranked at-large teams. The departure of 10 teams from the Pac-12 has prompted the CFP management committee to propose changing the model to five conference champions getting automatic bids, plus seven at-large teams. The board of managers votes on that this week.

They also must figure out how to distribute revenue from the playoff going forward.

There are two years remaining on ESPN’s current deal, which this year will include the new first-round games held at on-campus sites, in addition to the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games.

However that shakes out, the SEC’s Sankey told the Athletic that the study group started by his conference and the Big 10 isn’t looking to replace the CFP. “We’re certainly interested in continuing the playoff,” he said, “but there’s work to do.”

If the new six-year CFP deal, worth $1.3 billion annually, is finalized, it will give ESPN control over nearly all Division I college sports championships, outside of the men’s basketball tournament, which is televised by CBS, TNT and their sister outlets through 2032.

It’s beginning to look like from now on college football is ESPN’s world, and the rest of us are just living in it.

I suppose we should get ready for even crazier kickoff times.