Alabama-Clemson is a national championship rematch with one unique twist.
The guy calling plays for the top-ranked Crimson Tide will be doing so for the first time with Alabama.
When head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin parted ways last week — ostensibly because Kiffin had become distracted by his duties as new head coach at Florida Atlantic — it created the ultimate X-factor for the third College Football Playoff title game, which kicks off at 8 p.m. ET in Tampa, Fla., on Monday night.
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Hello, Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian has been with the program almost all season as an offensive analyst, able to help with the game plan and such, but he was prohibited from offering coaching or instruction to the players until this week’s promotion.
“Sark has done this for a long time, and he’s called plays for a long time,” Saban said Saturday morning.
“He’s got a lot of experience; he’s got a lot of knowledge. I think he’s very well organized in his approach, and I’d tell him what I tell any coach; we’ve prepared to do certain things in certain situations, let’s stick with the plan.”
Sarkisian, the former head coach at Washington and USC, was fired from his job with the Trojans in October 2015 amid an alleged substance abuse problem.
Asked about that Saturday, he said, “I’m doing great. I appreciate you asking, yeah.”
Sarkisian visited Alabama in fall camp for a week, figuring he would try to do some TV work this season. But Saban found him a behind-the-scenes role that has morphed into being at the center of a white-hot spotlight.
“I’m excited,” Sarkisian said. “This is what I love to do. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Can he find a play-calling rhythm against an attacking and stout Clemson defense? Will he know exactly the right thing to say on the sideline to true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts?
How will he blend Alabama’s multiple threats — Hurts’ legs, running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, tight end O.J. Howard?
“I’m not naive to think we’re not going to have a couple glitches,” Sarkisian said. “But how we respond to those glitches is going to be key.”
Sarkisian has been on the offensive headsets during games. He’s not a novice to the Tide or to the job. But there has never been a situation like this, with a team replacing its offensive coordinator a week before a national title game, so everyone will be on the lookout for new wrinkles, good or bad.
“It’s not like they’re going to run a different offense,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You know, maybe he calls a couple more screens than the other guy would have called. I have no idea.”
–Dabo Swinney tried Saturday to defuse some of the controversy around the incident from the Fiesta Bowl in which defensive tackle Christian Wilkins groped at the groin of Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel, who was on the ground after being tackled.
Earlier this week, linebacker Ben Boulware gassed the fire when he said of the groping: “We’ve done it all year to mess with players. No one has done it as aggressive as Christian did. We try to be more discreet about it. He grabbed a handful.”
Swinney didn’t much care for that answer.
“Ben is a bull in a china shop, and he answered it like a bull in a china shop,” Swinney said. “It’s unacceptable, and he apologized to his teammates and to me. He knows who we are. That’s not what we’re about. We don’t teach that kind of stuff. We play the game with great passion and will to win, but it was inappropriate. It’s just not what we do.”
–Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, as a junior who has graduated, is eligible to play in this year’s Senior Bowl, although he said Saturday he is not sure if he will accept the invitation.
“My focus is on the national championship and we’ll figure all that out afterwards,” he said.
–Alabama sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough is eligible for the NFL Draft because he is three years removed from his high school graduation, but he said Saturday he will be back with the Crimson Tide next season. He ran for 180 yards against Washington.
“What’s crazy, is a lot of those plays we didn’t necessarily block them well,” left tackle Cam Robinson said. “He just made that happen. That’s just the God-given ability that he has.”
Scarbrough has 361 yards on 47 carries in the last three games, against top-flight defenses (Auburn, Florida, Washington).
–Alabama has been ranked No. 1 all season and has been No. 1 at some point for a record nine consecutive seasons. The previous record was seven, set by Miami from 1986 to 1992.