Everything ends sometime — including coaching tenures.

At some point in the future, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn no longer will be their respective team’s coach. Whether you want to think about that or not, it is going to happen.

With that realization, the natural thought that comes after that is simple: Who will replace them?

There’s no way to know the answer yet, but it’s fun to speculate, isn’t it? And that’s just what I’m going to do.

Depending on when each coach departs, this list could look totally different, but for today I’m going to go with who and what we know.

So, let’s dive right into it.

 

TOP CANDIDATES TO REPLACE SABAN

Dabo Swinney, Clemson: This easily is the top choice in most people’s eyes.

It just seems like such a natural fit. Swinney, who has led the Tigers to unprecedented success that culminated with the 2016 national championship, brought the program up from its previous reputation for not being able to win the big games (remember “Clemsoning?”) to its spot as one of the elite programs in America.

Swinney was born in Birmingham, played receiver for Alabama from 1990-92 and was a member of the Tide’s national title team. Then, once his playing career was over, he was a graduate assistant and assistant coach for the school from 1993 to 2000.

Swinney’s ties to the school and area obviously run deep. You’d have to think the chance to come home and coach his alma mater would be one he’d have a tough time turning down. It's possibly the only job he'd consider leaving Clemson for. He’d get all the resources and advantages he has at Clemson and then some, and he’d have the chance to lead a program that at least is on par with the Tigers, and maybe the best in the nation.

He has coached at Clemson since 2003, though. He’s been the head man there since 2009. In all that time, he’s obviously developed a connection to the school and area, meaning it might be a tougher choice for him to leave than you might think.

He likely will be the top choice for the job once Saban is gone, and it’s just a question of whether or not he’d come back home.

 

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: If not Swinney, Alabama might be inclined to raid another ACC school for its coach.

Fisher has connections both to the state and Nick Saban. He served as an assistant coach at Samford from 1988 to 1992, then was Auburn’s quarterback coach from 1993 to 1998. After a stopover in Cincinnati, he joined Saban’s staff at LSU in 2000 as the offensive coordinator. Like Saban, he was born in West Virginia.

Since 2010, he’s taken a Florida State program that had fallen on tough times under legendary coach Bobby Bowden and returned it to elite status. He led the Seminoles to the 2013 national title (beating his old employer Auburn in the process).

If not Swinney, Fisher is the most logical candidate to replace Saban. It’s likely Fisher will get support from his old boss for the gig, and he also has proven he can lead a top-shelf program.

However, he has a good thing going in Tallahassee, so would he want to leave it? Plus, he doesn’t have much in the way of ties to the school other than having worked for Saban. Still, if Swinney would be the No. 1 candidate, you maybe could look at Fisher as 1B.

They really look to be the top, and possibly only, candidates to fill Saban’s shoes (barring Bill Belichick suddenly deciding he wants to coach a college program and picking Tuscaloosa as the place to do it).

 

TOP CANDIDATES TO REPLACE MALZAHN

Bobby Petrino, Louisville: The list to potentially take over for Malzahn isn’t quite as simple as the one to replace Saban. However, Petrino seems the most likely man to lead the Auburn program once Malzahn is gone.

Petrino is a proven whiz on the offensive side of the ball. No matter where he’s been (not counting his ill-fated tenure in the NFL with the Falcons), he’s produced powerhouse offenses that consistently were balanced and explosive. His hire undoubtedly would make offensive recruits stand up and take notice. Just last season, his quarterback at Louisville, Lamar Jackson, won the Heisman Trophy as a true sophomore.

In addition, he has coached in Auburn before, serving as the offensive coordinator in 2002, so he knows the Plains.

His offensive prowess would be a good check for the powerful defenses the rival Tide are known for.

What could keep this from happening? Well, if Petrino truly is happy at Louisville, he may decide to stay there. Considering his nomadic past though, that doesn’t seem likely. Also, considering the controversy surrounding the last attempted hire of Petrino by Auburn (athletic officials met with him about taking the job while Tommy Tuberville still was the Tigers’ coach), you have to wonder if that ship has sailed.

There’s also the controversy that got him fired at Arkansas, when he was found to be having an affair with an athletic department employee and giving her preferential treatment. There’s also his ugly premature departure from the Falcons.

Still, this one seems like the best bet.

 

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: As already mentioned, Fisher has a pretty strong connection to Auburn, having coached there for six years in the 1990s. It’s possible he’d find the job more appealing than the Alabama job simply because of that connection.

Unlike Petrino, Fisher hasn’t been embroiled in a number of controversies that have cast him in a negative light, and he has won a national title — something that has eluded Petrino.

Fisher very well might be the top choice for the job ahead of Petrino, so like with Alabama, you can consider Fisher the No. 1B choice for the Tigers.

 

Will Muschamp, South Carolina: This one really is contingent on one thing: Muschamp’s level of success at South Carolina.

Having already failed at Florida, Muschamp has to prove that he can lead a program to success before he’d be considered as Malzahn’s replacement.

He’s off to a good start with the Gamecocks, though. He took a team that went 3-9 in 2015 to a 6-7 record and a bowl game. The turnaround was impressive, as many thought the Gamecocks lacked the talent to even match the previous year’s win total.

Should the USC program continue to progress under Muschamp, then he likely would get a hard look for the Auburn job. He has more connections to the Tigers than arguably anyone on this list. He has had three different tenures at Auburn, starting as a graduate assistant in 1995 and 1996. He went on to be the team’s defensive coordinator in 2006-07 and again in 2015.

His major failing at Florida was the mediocre offenses the team produced in his time there, but with the right coordinator, that shouldn’t be a problem going forward. That could mean he’ll be a viable contender for the job whenever Malzahn no longer is Auburn’s coach.

Would he be as popular a hire as Petrino or Fisher? No — at least not right now. But should he keep the Gamecocks rising toward the top of the SEC East, that could change.

 

Bob Stoops, currently not coaching: These last two are definitely dark-horse candidates, but hey, they’re available and they’re high profile, so why not?

Now, Stoops never has been shy about publicly saying how he really feels about the SEC. The recently retired former Oklahoma coach regularly has made it know that he thinks the league is overrated and gets way more hype and attention than it deserves.

However, money talks, and if Auburn is paying, you get the feeling he’d change his tune in a hurry.

Plus, Stoops has coached in the SEC before — he was the defensive coordinator at Florida from 1996-98 before being hired by the Sooners. And his brother Mark is the coach at Kentucky.

Stoops helped return Oklahoma to the elite in college football, including a national title in 2000. If he shows interest in getting back into coaching, it only would make sense that Auburn would pursue him.

 

Chip Kelly, currently not coaching: This one is an even wilder wild card.

For starters, Kelly looks to be a West Coast lifer. He was the offensive coordinator at Oregon before taking over the program in 2009, leading the Ducks to the national title against — surprise — Auburn, a game the Tigers won 22-19. He did leave for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles for a few years from 2013-15, but he came back to the West Coast to coach the San Francisco 49ers in 2016.

After being fired after one year, he since has remained unemployed. However, any time a big job out west is open, or even rumored to possibly be open in the near future, his name is mentioned prominently.

In addition, he left some NCAA sanctions in his wake at Oregon.

But the bottom line is, Kelly has proven to be an elite college football coach. He is an offensive mastermind, one of the innovators of the current trend of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. He made Oregon a national brand.

It’s not inconceivable Auburn would throw a Hail Mary and try to land Kelly. The Tigers’ offensive personnel already has been recruited for a spread offense, so the transition wouldn’t be tough. It’s a fit that makes more sense than you might think.

 

J.J. Hicks is a sports writer for The Gadsden Times. Follow him on twitter @GT_JJHicks. Contact him at jj.hicks@gadsdentimes.com.