TAMPA — Steve Sarkisian smiled at the question.
“Is it like riding a bike?” a reporter asked Saturday. “It,” in this case, is calling offensive plays. Sarkisian, after 15 months off the bike, is about to enter the playcalling version of the Tour de France.
“We'll find out Monday night,” said Sarkisian, who has gone from USC’s head coach to an unemployed alcoholic to a $35,000-a-year offensive analyst to the offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and playcaller for a team playing for the national title in a span of 15 months. Sarkisian learned Monday that he would run Alabama’s offense for the national title game against Clemson, an eight-day-early promotion that represents perhaps the biggest coaching risk Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban has ever taken. Saban could have allowed Lane Kiffin to coach this game before moving on to become the head coach at Florida Atlantic, but Saban decided after the Peach Bowl that it would be best if the Tide moved on in the College Football Playoff without Kiffin.
Outsiders might view Saban as conservative, but in four months at Alabama, Sarkisian has learned that characterization couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Actually, he really is an aggressive mannered coach,” Sarkisian said. “He'll do things aggressively. He likes to play the game aggressively. He likes to coach aggressively. I think this is just another example of that.”
This is a huge roll of the dice by Saban, but five national titles earn a coach the benefit of the doubt. And the funny part is that if Alabama wins, the decision to jettison Kiffin and elevate Sarkisian will be used as further evidence of Saban’s genius. If the offense falters and Alabama loses, everyone will blame Kiffin.
Saban must have considered the situation with Kiffin untenable, because few coaches appreciate consistency of performance as much as Saban does. To make the offense listen to a new voice under these circumstances is unprecedented. Sarkisian was originally scheduled to take over the offensive coordinator job after Monday’s title game, but Saban moved up the timetable. Even though Sarkisian has learned the offense in his time as an analyst—a relatively low-paying, non-coaching position that involves breaking down film and assisting with the game plan—he hadn’t worked with these players on the field until this past week.
“You're hearing this guy, and then you got another guy that's coming in,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts said Saturday. “So it's kind of weird. But at the same time it's something that we're going to have to get used to. I mean it's something that I would have to have gotten used to next year because that's what we were going to deal with next year. So I mean with that, it is what it is. We have complete confidence in coach Sark, and we think he'll do a great job come Monday.”
It’s very weird, but it’s also a huge opportunity for Sarkisian as he works his way back from an ugly chapter in his life. Sarkisian didn’t want to talk Saturday about the issues with alcoholism that cost him his job at USC. “That part of it is probably for a different time,” Sarkisian said. “Today, this is about what are we doing to win the game Monday night.” Throughout a one-hour interview session, he offered a version of this sentiment each time he was asked to discuss his sobriety.
These are legitimate questions for a coach who lost his last job because of several different alcohol-related incidents, but Sarkisian also doesn’t have to answer them for just anyone. As long as Saban is comfortable with where Sarkisian is, that’s what matters. Saban was comfortable enough with Sarkisian in December to name him the offensive coordinator for the 2017 season, and Saban was comfortable enough with Sarkisian this week to dump the guy who built Alabama’s current offense in favor of Sarkisian. “Sark has done this for a long time, and he's called plays for a long time,” Saban said Saturday. “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. Until we have to adjust the plan, that's what the players know, that's what we've practiced.”
Alabama coaches and players said practice moved at a faster pace with Sarkisian running the offense. Several different players used the phrase “locked in.” In fact, so many used it that it sounded like a talking point fed to them to help them answer any questions about how things are different under Sarkisian. How different will things be? Not much, according to Sarkisian and Saban.
Like Kiffin, Sarkisian will work from the field. Sarkisian likes being able to talk directly to his quarterback. He told a story Saturday about his playing days at BYU. In his first game, then-Cougars coordinator Norm Chow worked in the press box. Sarkisian said communication wasn’t as crisp because it felt like a game of Telephone, and Chow ultimately moved down to the field. Sarkisian has taken that with him throughout his career.
Sarkisian probably will call the game in a similar manner as Kiffin. When Kiffin and Sarkisian served under Pete Carroll at USC, Kiffin called the plays from the booth and Sarkisian relayed them to the quarterback from the sideline. “The majority of it, we were on the same page, so it was a good feel for what we were doing. That's why I think this scenario's pretty good for me,” Sarkisian said. “I have an idea of how Lane calls plays. This isn't going to be trying to recreate the wheel. We've got a system in place here. We're going to do the things that we do well, put our players in the best position to be successful come Monday night.”
Sarkisian said he wasn’t surprised by Saban’s decision. “Quite honestly, in this profession, nothing really surprises me,” Sarkisian said, “especially my career and the way it's all kind of gone down.”
Sarkisian had planned to call games for Fox this season. His debut was supposed to be the Central Michigan-Oklahoma State game on Fox Sports 1, but summer visits to Alabama, Florida, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers convinced him that he wanted to coach again. Saban, who also has former New Mexico coach and Maryland offensive coordinator Mike Locksley working as an offensive analyst, was intrigued by the idea of bringing in Sarkisian. “Before he left, he said he was supposed to do some TV work or something, but he would really like to get involved in a program someplace, and if there was any opportunity for him to do it here,” Saban said. “And I liked him in the week that he spent with us. I told him, ‘There may be some opportunity for you to do that here, but since we play USC first, I'd rather wait until after that game until we sort of do it because I wouldn't want people to think that we're trying to bring you in to create some advantage or whatever.”
Saban didn’t want to create an advantage for the season-opener, but consciously or not, he did create a backup option in case the Alabama-Kiffin marriage blew up before the season finale. Monday night against Clemson, we’ll find out if his gamble worked. “He entrusted in me the faith in me to go do it,” Sarkisian said. “Like I said, I'm humbled. I'm honored that he did. Away we go.”
A random ranking
So many people mocked Mariah Carey’s “performance” on New Year’s Eve that few noticed that Lionel Richie killed it a few minutes later from Las Vegas. This is because Lionel Richie is a pro’s pro. And because Lionel Richie is such a pro, I will rank his top 10 songs (solo and with The Commodores). I realize there is at least one shocking omission. This ranking involved some of the most difficult choices I’ve had to make since I began writing Punt, Pass and Pork.
1. Stuck on You
2. Sail On*
3. Dancin’ On the Ceiling
4. Deep River Woman
5. All Night Long
8. Say You, Say Me
9. You Are
10. Endless Love**
* On this song, Richie sings “I know it's a shame, but I'm givin' you back your name.” That’s one of the most savage lines in musical history.
** It turns out friends cannot listen to Endless Love in the dark.
1. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes his Tigers might be the only team in the country with enough offensive and defensive firepower to beat Alabama, and he may be correct. “These are the two best teams, and to be honest with you, I don't think there's another team out there that's capable of beating Alabama,” Swinney said. “I think we're probably the only team that has a chance. And we do. We’ve got a solid chance. But we've got to go toe to toe. Whoever is Ali, whoever is Frazier, it's two great guys battling it out. That's the way it is, and I love that. It's never been easy. My entire life, nothing has been easy, and this is the way it ought to be. If we're going to get it done, then we ought to have to play and beat a team like Alabama.”
2. Another person quite curious about how Alabama’s offense will look on Monday under Sarkisian is Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Venables said he has looked at some of Sarkisian’s playcalling work as a head coach, but he has spent far more time watching Alabama’s offense this season. “You don't want to chase ghosts either,” Venables said. “They're back in the national championship game, and their players are their players. They've got a great system. I don't think that Lane and Steve are on two different planets offensively and philosophically. My understanding is that there's been involvement this year, and so I think there's already some influence that way with Steve having been there.”
Venables said that in any game a defense must be prepared to stop wrinkles an offense hasn’t shown all season. He pointed to a play early in Clemson’s ACC title game win against Virginia Tech that Clemson had never seen that resulted in a sack because the Tigers played their keys correctly even though the formation and play were unfamiliar. “We hadn't worked that play one time … It's not going to be everything that we've been working,” Venables said. “There will be something that's going to be different. Just apply your rules. Stance alignment assignment key. If he tells you it's run, however you're supposed to fit the run, fit it. If it's a pass, understand the people around you, what your job is.”
3. Former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd has been helping Clemson’s scout team again. Boyd, who mimicked Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett in some practices before the Fiesta Bowl, has played as Hurts for some of the Tigers’ practices as they prepare for Alabama. “You want the real story? Truth serum here?” Venables said. “Tajh does a great job, man. He's done it. You can tell he's done it his whole life. He's got a good physical presence, big arm, quick release. He understands all the [run-pass options], that kind of thing. What he doesn't do is blow that whistle right before the snap because an adjustment wasn't made and all that.”
4. There are two types of players on Alabama’s defense—those who have scored touchdowns and those who haven’t. And the ones who have scored never hesitate to remind the others of that fact. “They joke around about their TD's, because only like three guys on the defense don't have touchdowns,” Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster said. “Yeah, they pick on us.”
The Tide have 15 non-offensive touchdowns this season, and 11 (six interception returns and five fumble returns) have come on defense. These are the members of the Touchdown Club:
DE Jonathan Allen (2)
S Minkah Fitzpatrick (2)
S Ronnie Harrison (2)
LB Ryan Anderson
CB Marlon Humphrey
S Eddie Jackson
LB Tim Williams
DT Da’Ron Payne
Foster yearns to join this group, if only for the trash talk. Anderson’s pick-six last week helped the Tide beat Washington, and it also allowed Anderson to say whatever he wants. “Ryan will be like, ‘If y'all don't got a pick six, don't talk to me,’” Foster said.
5. Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware was asked Saturday about the notion that any team that aspires to win the national title “wants Bama.” His answer was excellent. “They're the standard in college football. They’re the best. They have created a dynasty,” Boulware said. “We obviously want to take that role, and I'm sure as every other team in college football does. But Alabama is the standard. I think Clemson's coming a close second. But right now they're the best team in the country. They were the best team last year. They’re the best team so far now. Hopefully, we'll change that label come Monday night.”
6. Watch Alabama punter JK Scott break his own personal record for solving a Rubik’s Cube, courtesy of AL.com. (The best part is hearing Saban answering questions in the background.)
7. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson explained Saturday why the Tigers might be better equipped to win their second national title game against Alabama. “We just have experience,” Watson said. “We are just more focused on the task at hand this year. Last year was an eye-opener. We had never been there before, and it was new to all of us. The only person that had really been to a national championship is coach Swinney and a couple of other coaches. But as far as players, none of us been to this stage so last year it was new for us to see the "hype" of the game and how it really was. But this year everyone is keeping it calm and simple and just preparing for the game, keeping it calm and focused.”
8. Former Auburn offensive lineman and current ESPN and SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic joined myself and Lindsay Schnell to break down the play on the line of scrimmage in the national title game. We also talked about Oil Checks and Conecuh sausage biscuits.
9. When you’re done with our podcast, download this from my friends Dan Rubenstein and Ty Hildebrandt at The Solid Verbal. They put together an excellent wall-to-wall national title game preview that should make any drive fly by.
10. In case you haven’t been paying attention to recruiting and think Clemson’s current run of success will end when Deshaun Watson leaves, future Clemson quarterback Hunter Johnson—who starts classes next week—was named the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday.
What's Eating Andy
Savor the clash between Alabama and Clemson on Monday night. We don't get another college football game until August.
What's Andy Eating
This is two hamburger patties sandwiched between two doughnuts. It should taste terrible, but it tastes incredible. You should not eat it if you value your life. If you value your taste buds, you should eat every blessed morsel.
As we walked into Datz in Tampa on Thursday night, I asked Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports to stand in for you, the reader. I asked which dish Bruce would rather read about me eating: A doughnut burger or meatloaf stuffed with bacon jalapeño mac and cheese. Bruce did not need time to deliberate. He insisted that you would want to read about the burger, so I ordered the Double D—undoubtedly named to honor the feature attractions at Tampa’s world-famous gentlemen’s clubs.
The Double D is considerably more than a handful, and I assumed upon first sight that I’d need a knife and fork to tame it. But I didn’t want to give in to the burger, no matter how deadly it might be. So I put my hands around it and squeezed. The raised, glazed doughnuts gave but did not shatter. (Cake doughnuts would have, so I can add that to the growing list of reasons cake doughnuts are the worst.) Before I took a bite, I removed the sprig of lettuce the chef had placed in the hole of the top doughnut. This clearly wasn’t intended to enhance the flavor of the burger. No. That spring was placed there to mock my life choices. I admit that I’m weak. If you put two burger patties between two glazed doughnuts and place that item on your restaurant’s menu, I’m going to order and devour that monstrosity no matter what advice a respected colleague offers.
What should exist only for shock value actually makes a supremely satisfying meal. The same sweet-salty craving that gave us bacon brownies and salted caramel ice cream works just as well when the salty aspect is the featured attraction. Still, you should never, ever eat this. (Even though you will.) At one point, Feldman asked how many calories I thought my Double D packed. I asked him why he hated me.
As I sweated off about one-tenth of the Double D in the gym at 11:30 that night, I thought hard about that awful, glorious concoction. Will I truly eat anything that doesn’t eat me first?
Probably. I regret nothing.