If Kirby Smart, whose new head coaching job at Georgia required him to recruit against Alabama while still coaching the Crimson Tide defense, could pull double duty through last season’s playoff, the new head coach at Florida Atlantic should have been able to get through this season’s playoff. But little involving Lane Kiffin ever goes smoothly, which is why Nick Saban finds himself installing a new offensive coordinator a week before the national title game.
Saban’s quote in Alabama’s press release on Monday suggests this was a mutual decision—as much as any decision involving Saban’s team can be made mutually. “We appreciate all that Lane has done for our football program over the last three years,” Saban said in the release. “We sat down following the Washington game and talked about the time demands of managing both jobs, and we recognized that it is best for our players, and for Lane, that we allow him to turn his full attention to his new head coaching role at FAU.”
That sounds like Saban taking the high road after Kiffin’s game plan against Washington yielded one effective touchdown drive and one amazing Bo Scarbrough touchdown run in Alabama’s 24–7 Peach Bowl win. Kiffin had nearly a month to put together that plan while recruiting for FAU and assembling a staff. He was about to have a week to plan for a Clemson defense that just shut out freaking Ohio State while still trying to recruit and hire a staff at FAU. That’s why fellow former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian will start his new job a week early. Sarkisian has served as an analyst on Alabama’s staff since September and was named the coordinator for next year on Dec. 16. While he hasn’t been coaching at practice or in games, he has been involved in game-planning for the entire season. So he knows the offense and the personnel, even if our only look at him during the Peach Bowl was, um, terribly unfortunate.
We joked in the press box during that game that Saban might attempt to maim Kiffin on the sideline if Kiffin kept using Scarbrough so sparingly. We didn’t think he’d effectively can him two days later, but Saban has a national title to chase. Common sense would suggest that after watching what Brent Venables’ Clemson defense did to the Buckeyes, Saban probably decided that group needed his coordinator’s full attention.
Smart handled double duty well during the long stretch between the SEC title game (and his Georgia hiring) and the Cotton Bowl last year. Alabama shut out Michigan State. But when Smart only had a little more than a week to prepare for Clemson while also working for Georgia, his defense allowed 40 points and might have allowed more had a successful Alabama onside kick not reduced the Tigers’ possessions by one. Perhaps the trauma of that convinced Saban that a change might be able to stop Christian Wilkins and Ben Boulware from doing to Alabama’s offense next week what Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow did to Alabama’s defense last year.
Of course, Kiffin and Smart occupied different places on Saban’s coaching tree. Smart had served loyally since 2007 and could have stayed as long as he wanted had he not taken a head coaching job. (Though after the Maurice Smith transfer saga last summer, he and Saban aren’t quite as chummy.) Kiffin’s contract was going to expire in February whether he took the FAU job or not. Had FAU not offered, Kiffin would have been working against the Tide as LSU’s offensive coordinator. The Kiffin-Saban relationship, while fruitful for both, was never meant to be everlasting.
Kiffin said after the game that he didn’t use Scarbrough—who gained an Alabama bowl record 180 rushing yards on a career-high 19 carries—more because he couldn’t always get him into the game when the Tide were trying to go up-tempo. “When you saw us slow down and try to take time, we struggled more,” Kiffin said. “[Washington’s] defense does that. They diagnose the plays really well and do a good job of seeing your formations. So we felt like going fast was a little better.” Kiffin didn’t really explain why the Tide seemed to lack a short and intermediate passing game even though Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart have excelled at gaining more yards after catching short passes in space. It’s a testament to Saban, who has a chance Monday to win his sixth national title as a head coach, that we actually wondered for a moment whether Alabama was holding some things back for Clemson. For the record, the Tide were not holding anything back. They had a subpar game plan against one of the best defenses they’ll face, and their coordinator elected not to give the ball more to the one guy who was having success against that defense.
In that same postgame interview, Kiffin was asked how he would manage his time between the Peach Bowl and the national title game. “If there’s some time at night to make some recruiting calls or do an interview, we’ll work around it,” Kiffin said. “But my No. 1 focus will be finishing what we started.”
Monday, Saban opted for the coordinator who doesn’t need to rank his focuses.