Alabama didn’t drop a curveball on the college football world Monday. It dropped a 12-to-6 knee-buckler that included all of the ingredients Eddie Harris used on his in Major League.
Head coach Nick Saban announced in an emailed release that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will not coach in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 9 against Clemson and will focus his attention on his new role as the head coach at Florida Atlantic. Incoming offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will take over one game earlier than anticipated and call the plays against the Tigers.
Saban elaborated on the move in the release:
This wasn’t an easy decision and we appreciate the way Lane handled this in terms of doing what is best for our team. At the end of the day, both of us wanted to put our players in the best position to be successful. Obviously, we are in a unique situation here where we have our next offensive coordinator already on staff. We have full confidence that Sark will step in right away and make this a smooth transition.
Is this an unusual development? Yes. Is the timing strange? You bet. Is it a gamble? Of course. Should Alabama fans be concerned that such a sudden change one week before the biggest game of the year could disrupt game preparation? Absolutely.
But it won’t make or break Alabama’s title chances.
The reason is simple. Sarkisian is a Kiffin clone whose primary job this week will be to navigate, not steer.
Sarkisian and Kiffin, who worked together at Southern California as the Trojans were cranking up in the early and mid-2000s, have a similar flexible offensive philosophy that uses a power-based attack while mixing in new-school twists like a high tempo and calling plays to the quarterback’s strength.
“Really kind of did everything together, and I kind of think we almost grew up in coaching together, so our minds kind of think the same way with plays and stuff,” Kiffin said prior to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl national semifinal win over Washington. “That’s why it’s been valuable to have him here this year. He’s helped us a lot.”
Sarkisian has been on staff as an analyst since early September, and the players seem to feel like things won’t miss a beat.
“He’s a talented guy,” quarterback Jalen Hurts said prior to the Peach Bowl. “He has a great track record, and I think he’ll do a great job here. I have a lot of respect for him because I know what he’s done, the quarterbacks he’s had. So I think he’ll be fine.”
Hurts was referring to Sarkisian’s long-term outlook, though.
His short-term success in Monday’s game will be dependent on the same factors Kiffin’s would have: stretching the field deep and attacking Clemson’s secondary with Hurts’ arm.
Pittsburgh quarterback Nathan Peterman lit up the Tigers like a Christmas tree in Clemson’s lone loss, throwing for 308 yards and five touchdowns. Jerod Evans threw for 264 when Virginia Tech hung around in the ACC Championship Game a bit longer than anticipated.
That’s where Alabama needs to attack Clemson to win its second straight national title, and it’s where the biggest question mark will remain in Tuscaloosa heading into the showdown in Tampa, Florida.
Hurts didn’t stretch the field deep all that much through the first 14 games of his career. He’s averaging just 7.5 yards per attempt (eighth in the SEC), and as CFB Film Room noted after the Iron Bowl, most of the passes called for Hurts this season have been ultra-conservative.
Sarkisian is no dummy.
He knows keeping things as familiar as possible with Hurts is the path of least resistance in the title game. The plays will be the same, the plan will be the same, and the goals will be the same with Sark at the helm rather than Kiffin.
That means those short passes Hurts has feasted on during the season will have to open things up for shots deep when appropriate, and Hurts must connect on those shots when they’re taken.
That plan would be in place with Kiffin, will be with Sarkisian and would exist no matter who’s roaming the sidelines wearing a headset.
Sarkisian’s job is to navigate. It’s on Hurts to steer the ship into the dock in Tampa on Monday night.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of CFBStats, and recruiting information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on SiriusXM. Follow Barrett on Twitter and Facebook.
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