Steve Sarkisian

Alabama’s keys to national championship game include trying to solve Deshaun Watson (good luck!)

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The rematch is on in the College Football Playoff national championship game with Alabama and Clemson set to battle for the national championship for a second straight season. Both teams will have the benefit of having gone through this experience against each other last year, so there is a certain familiarity with what the other team is capable of doing. For Alabama, knowing just how dangerous Deshaun Watson can be leading the Tigers offense going in will lead Alabama to look for new ways to scheme against him.

In last year’s championship game, Watson put on a performance that drew comparisons to Vince Young in the Rose Bowl against USC, although Watson came up on the short end of the winning tally. In the epic 45-40 loss to the Tide, Watson scorched Alabama for 405 passing yards and four touchdowns and added 73 rushing yards. It was Watson’s best performance of the year, and it came against the best defense in the country. Guess what. Alabama once again has the best defense in the country, and Watson is fully capable of going off for a big game once again. You can make him make a mistake, as evidenced at times this season. Watson has been picked off 17 times this year, including twice last week by Ohio State. The key for Alabama will be converting points off turnovers. Ohio State, obviously, was unable to do that, but the only team to beat them this year managed to do that. Watson was intercepted three times against Pittsburgh in Clemson’s only loss of the season. The Panthers took advantage of two of those picks by scoring touchdowns on the ensuing possession (Pitt was forced to punt on the first, scored two touchdowns on the next two).

Disrupting Clemson’s momentum on offense will not be easy, even for a talented and stacked defense like Alabama’s, because Clemson does like to move the ball quickly. It’s not just the no-huddle style either. It is also how quickly Clemson releases the ball and gets it in movement. Take a look at how quickly Watson gets the play rolling after taking the snap. Unless he is looking to go downfield and has to wait for a man to get open, he is pulling a quick trigger on a screen pass or tossing to the running back and then Clemson is on the go. That caught up to Ohio State and wore down the defense. Wearing down Alabama’s defense should not be as easy, and if the Tide can get in the backfield on the snap to cause chaos before Clemson can get things rolling consistently, then it will apply pressure on Watson and Clemson to do something else.

When Watson does get rid of the ball, Alabama will have to find ways to cover wide receiver Mike Williams (1,297 receiving yards, 10 TDs) and tight end Jordan Leggett, who could be a wild card factor in this matchup. But Alabama’s biggest concern in this game (other than Watson) will be Clemson’s defensive line. The Tigers just pitched a shutout against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, allowing just 215 yards of offense to the Buckeyes and forcing three turnovers (including two interceptions of J.T. Barrett). Clemson’s defensive effort put everybody on notice that they are on a mission and primed to give Alabama all they can handle. The good news for Alabama is their offensive line is much better than Ohio State’s, so fending off the pressure should be more successful to the point where Jalen Hurts will get some time to think more often than not.

The biggest mystery for Alabama is what happens on offense. Giving the bizarre circumstances this week of showing Lane Kiffin on the door on his way to FAU and promoting Steve Sarkisian to offensive coordinator, where he will call plays for the first time in years, there is a bit of a question as to how much of Alabama’s offense may look different compared to under Kiffin. Will Sarkisian stick to what has been working or will he throw in some new wrinkles? That could be good or bad for Alabama, could catch Clemson off guard or completely blow up in Alabama’s face. Sarkisian is taking on a huge role in this championship game, and it will responsibility to find whatever cracks he can in Clemson’s defense and open them up.

Reports: Lane Kiffin to take head coaching job at FAU

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin may not have been the right guy for the job at Houston, and South Florida ended up going in a different direction as well. Despite missing out on some very interesting job positions, Kiffin will reportedly fill the head coaching vacancy at Florida Atlantic. Brett McMurphy of ESPN reported the coaching hire news, via Twitter. Others soon followed wiht the same information. Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports reports Kiffin will sign a five-year contract.

FAU dismissed Charlie Partridge as the head coach following a third-straight 3-9 season. The Owls, coming off their fourth season in Conference USA, may actually be in better shape as a program now compared to when Partridge was hired even if the record may not show it. Kiffin is stepping into a much smaller spotlight with the Owls, but it is not one that will prevent him from leaving his mark as a head coach. The pressure to win at FAU is nowhere close to where it has been in Kiffin’s recent stops at Tennessee, USC and as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.

The Kiffin-FAU pairing does feel a bit strange at first considering how much Kiffin’s name has been thrown around in recent weeks for various jobs, ranging from potential head coach at Houston or USF to being offensive coordinator at LSU. The big question left unanswered is whether this will be used as a stepping stone to a bigger job offer down the line if Kiffin proves he is capable of being a solid head coach. Such is the life of a Group of Five program, and Kiffin’s name will continue to be thrown in the rumor mill if he has just an ounce of success with the Owls. But Kiffin will get a chance to recruit in Florida, and that should be something he can do well. The recruiting battles in Florida alone just got a whole lot more fun to watch with Kiffin and Charlie Strong coming in to the state.

It is expected Kiffin will stay on the Alabama coaching staff throughout the College Football Playoff run, but who takes Kiffin’s spot on the coaching staff will have to be addressed by Nick Saban at some point. Steve Sarkisian was added to the football staff and could be in line for a possible promotion to offensive coordinator.

FAU hiring Kiffin leaves two FBS coaching vacancies to fill for now. Temple and Western Kentucky remain on the lookout for a new head coach.

USC dominates UCLA for Pac-12 South crown; Trojans vs. Stanford for Pac-12 title

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For the first time in program history, the school with the most football championships in Pac-12 history will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) snapped its three-game losing streak against crosstown rival No. 22 UCLA (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12) in convincing fashion in the second half to pick up a 40-21 win and claim ownership of the Pac-12 South Division championship. The win will send USC to the Pac-12 Championship Game to play Pac-12 North champion Stanford next week.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler may not have put up huge numbers against the Bruins, but his 15-of-26 for 175 yards and two touchdowns without an interception was effective enough to lead the team to a victory. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen for UCLA got his first dose of the rivalry with the Trojans, and it did not go as well. Rosen was picked off twice and he completed just 19 of his 37 pass attempts. Bruins running back Paul Perkins rushed for 95 yards and two scores, but USC’s Justin Davis was the big runner of the day with 130 rushing yards. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson made some big plays happen as well with a punt return for a touchdown. USC’s Rasheem Green had a 31-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave USC a 26-21 lead. This proved to be the game-winning score, as the Trojans continued to tack on a couple of more touchdowns on offense.

USC was the preseason favorite of the Pac-12 media at media day this summer, and now they have a chance to make good on those expectations. The fact they have arrived at this point is a fascinating story all by itself given the bumpy path it took to get to this point.

Stanford handed USC its first loss of the season in the early part of the season. The Cardinal took a 41-31 victory against the Trojans and never really looked back in conference play. USC struggled a few more times and had to go through an in-season coaching change with the firing of Steve Sarkisian. Clay Helton took over as the interim coach for the Trojans, and quickly calmed the stability of the program after a loss at Notre Dame. USC ripped through Utah to mix up the Pac-12 North and went on to win the next three games before hitting a speed bump on the road at Oregon against a resurgent Ducks program. USC has won more Pac-12 conference championships than any other conference member, including time as the Pac-8 or Pac-10, with 38 conference championships. It has not played in the Pac-12 Championship Game though, but that will change next week.

USC may be able to play spoiler for Stanford’s playoff dreams, if the Cardinal manage to beat Notre Dame tonight. The Pac-12 champion is still unlikely to sneak into the four-team playoff field, but Stanford is the one that has a slight chance to do so. USC, with four losses, will not have enough things bounce their way to make that giant leap.

USC fires Steve Sarkisian

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A day after placing head coach Steve Sarkisian on an indefinite leave of absence, USC has terminated the contract of the head coach effective immediately. Clay Helton will continue as the interim head coach, as was announced following the initial leave of absence for Sarkisian on Sunday. A brief statement from USC Athletics Director Pat Haden announced the news on the school’s website.

“After careful consideration of what is in the best interest of the university and our student-athletes, I have made the decision to terminate Steve Sarkisian, effective immediately,” the statement from Haden said. “I want to thank Clay Helton for stepping into the interim head coach role, and I want to add how proud I am of our coaching staff and players and the way they are responding to this difficult situation.”

Sarkisian, a former USC assistant coach, returned to USC in 2014 to take over as head coach following five seasons at Washington. He replaced Lane Kiffin, who was also let go in-season in 2013. Sarkisian lasted 18 games with the Trojans, going 12-6 in those games. As it turns out, both Kiffin and Sarkisian lasted just five games in their final seasons as head coach at USC. Sarkisian’s final game came Thursday night, with the Trojans being upset at home by Washington. For Sarkisian, the problems off the field ultimately may have carried much more weight in the decision to remove him as head coach.

Sarkisian’s recently reported struggles with alcohol had crossed a line with interfering with practices, team meetings and/or sideline decision-making during games. Sarkisian also had an embarrassing public display of drunkenness prior to the start of the season in front of prominent boosters and supporters of the program. On Sunday Sarkisian showed up to the USC practice facility said to be “not healthy,” per Haden. He was then placed on indefinite leave to seek help.

“Through all of this we remain concerned for Steve and hope that it will give him the opportunity to focus on his personal well being,” Haden’s statement today said.

So USC is now in the market for a new head coach, and the Trojans should be one of the more attractive jobs on the job board this coaching carousel cycle. there will also be calls for more changes though, as Haden has come under fire for his past hires as well. Big changes could be on the horizon for USC, and what the Trojans do now will be watched by everyone around college football.

Success at Utah keeps Kyle Whittingham coaching rumors alive and well

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Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has been in charge of the Utes program for over a decade since Urban Meyer left Salt Lake City for Gainesville. With Utah continuing to rise in the polls and look more and more like a solid playoff contender, could Whittingham now be seen as a possible leading candidate for some more high-profile jobs in this upcoming round of the coaching carousel, say at USC for example?

USC placed current head coach Steve Sarkisian on an indefinite leave of absence on Sunday and it seems there could be some drastic changes forthcoming for the Trojans in Los Angeles. If USC needs to find a new head coach, the program should be capable of attracting some very good candidates for the job, and some have already suggested the school will or should make a push for former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, currently the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL. There is little doubt Kelly would do some terrific things with USC, but it remains an unrealistic combination right now (Kelly has won 20 games his first two seasons in the NFL and still has the Eagles in striking distance of first place in the NFC East despite early struggles, and he just took on the role of general manager; he has some good power going for him in the NFL). Whittingham, though, appears to be a much more likely target for USC if a coaching search is to begin.

It is important to remember the differences between Meyer’s departure from Utah and Whittingham’s current standing with the program. When Meyer left Utah for Florida, the Utes were still a Mountain West Conference program that did not compare or compete with the amenities of power conference programs. While success could certainly be attained at Utah, the chances of taking the next step as a program and competing for a national title were minimal at best at Utah a decade ago. The times have changed though.

Today Utah is a member of the Pac-12 and as of now is the only undefeated team left in the conference. Utah’s high ranking in the polls now is perceived in a different way it may have been when Utah was in the Mountain West Conference. Fair or not, that is just the reality of the situation. You can make the argument Whittingham has anything and everything he needs to have a shot at winning big at Utah. The performance to date certainly helps back that up.

While facilities and conference allegiance have been improved, does Utah have staying power to be a perennial national title contender? Does Utah have the resources to pay Whittingham and his staff top dollar? Compared to some programs that could be in need of a new head coach elsewhere, Utah may still have some work to do.

Just within the last year Whittingham has been connected to one coaching rumor or another (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh to name a few), and some even went so far to try and connect Whittingham to BYU, of all schools. This was nothing new. Whittingham had also been thought of as a potential coaching candidate at schools like Arizona and Penn State in recent years as well. Again though, those earlier coaching rumors occurred when Whittingham was in the Mountain West. Now, with Utah in the Pac-12, the playing field has been leveled a bit as he has adapted and grown the program to compete in his new conference.

A similar path has been taken by Gary Patterson at TCU. Patterson has guided TCU through multiple conference changes and finally has the Horned Frogs playing at a high level in the Big 12 as a conference and playoff contender. Patterson could have had almost any job he wanted as he continued to build TCU’s football program to this point, but he has opted to stay put and see to it TCU reaches the ultimate goals ahead of them. Perhaps the same will hold true for Whittingham as well.

There is nothing wrong with looking around and hearing what others have to offer. In fact, now might be a good time for Whittingham to entertain the possibility, because if Utah continues winning games he will have some leverage in his future whether he stays at Utah or not.